L.A. Confidential

90/100

If you care about character and plotting, if you’re one of those people who’s complained that movies don’t have a compelling story anymore, if you’ve ever mourned the demise of adeptly concise filmmaking technique at the hands of directors interested in “look at me” stylistic spectacles, then get off your ass and go see L.A. Confidential, a crime drama that doesn’t prettify the crime or back off from the drama. If the critics overrate this one, it’s only because it looks so damned good in contrast to the rest of what’s out there.

The motley ensemble of James Cromwell (Babe), Russell Crowe (The Quick and the Dead), Guy Pearce (Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) and Kevin Spacey (The Usual Suspects) are the cops anchoring this carefully plotted story of how ideals and idealism work in the real world. Pearce is Ed Exley, a smart young cop who’s trying to live up to the legacy of his famously hard-assed father but refuses to engage in the rule-bending and back-breaking that the L.A.P.D. considers an important part of its duty. Crowe is Bud White, a veteran hard-ass who takes a personal interest in the unfolding mystery when his partner Dick Stensland (Graham Beckel) is gunned down in a massacre at a coffee shop called the Nite Owl. Spacey is an odd bird named Jack Vincennes, a suave detective who’s in cahoots with the editor (Danny DeVito) of a sleazy city tabloid called Hush-Hush and who’s technical consultant for a TV cop show called Badge of Honor for good press and a few bucks on the side. And Cromwell is homicide lieutenant Dudley Smith, the no-nonsense patriarch of this codependent family of policemen.

Kim Basinger, who’s wrecked her career as badly as anyone who ever looked like a star on the rise, makes up for lost time with her performance as the luminous Lynn Bracken, a call girl whose hairstyle is meant to evoke images of Veronica Lake. (In one of L.A. Confidential‘s seamy subplots, David Strathairn lords it over a prostitution ring featuring girls “cut” by surgeons to look like movie stars.) The nails-on-a-chalkboard DeVito is, I admit, just about perfect in a mercifully minor role.

In 1992, director Curtis Hanson helmed the enjoyably lurid The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, a movie that had my shits-and-giggles seal of approval until the moment it killed off villainess Rebecca DeMornay, for whom I had been rooting. I remembered that movie for the morbid efficiency with which it assaulted the domestic ideal, and for its success in creating a vengeful nemesis who had a human motivation for her dirty deeds. It may be a stretch to compare these two films, but L.A. Confidential is similarly interested in the lives of people who do bad things.

The story tracks the trajectories of two main characters — Exley and White — to the point where they intersect and beyond. The unlikeable White grows on us as he’s shown to be driven by some very human demons. And the staid Exley pulls us into his moral dilemma as he learns that it may be impossible to hold fast to one’s ideals and still work within a corrupt system. Both performances are top-drawer, and Crowe’s is probably one of the best this year. Spacey’s is the only real sense of humor, and he’s a welcome presence who doesn’t get as much screen time as you might expect. Cromwell, meanwhile, is the very embodiment of steely pragmatism.

If you’ve read James Ellroy, you may wonder how his crazy prose style translates to a screenplay. The answer is pretty damn well. The cops’ pervasive racism has been mostly elided, as have the more distasteful details of how L.A. indulged itself back in the day (sidelong references to pedophilia and bestiality). But the movie’s dialogue is faithful to the book in spirit and sometimes in detail. The intricacies of the novel have been trimmed down substantially but smartly by screenwriters Brian Helgeland and Hanson. For viewers, the bottom line is that the entire cast of characters may well be expendable, which adds urgency to the plentiful twists and turns. Unlike all too many thrillers du jour, this one’s convolutions are absorbing rather than confounding, and lead to dramatic payoffs.

Cinematographer Dante Spinotti, who shot Michael Mann’s very different vision of Los Angeles for 1995’s Heat, photographs L.A. Confidential in a restrained style that emphasizes character and mood while always finding the least obtrusive angle on a brawl or a murder scene. Together with Hanson, he can communicate violence through understatement (one victim is found sitting sitting up in a chair with his arms hanging over the sides and blood stains on the carpet below), through resort to the gross-out (other corpses are photographed with all the delicacy of a glossy from a crime scene), or by going completely nuts with a final, cathartic gun battle.

But what matters more than L.A. Confidential‘s style is, finally, its story — and this one is rich and disturbing and it moves like a greased pig, leaving you breathless. It’s about loyalty, morality, and — most of all — corruption. It’s about the ways that a good man compromises his integrity in order to do the right thing. It’s about deeply flawed heroes grappling with extraordinary everyday circumstances. It’s about where Los Angeles has been and maybe about where it’s going. It’s about the distance between stars, whores, and ordinary lives. And by extension, like all great films, it’s about us. Don’t miss this one.

The Game

78/100

Filmmaking itself is a bit of a game. Directors, actors, screenwriters, and editors play it with their audiences all the time. You use diversionary tactics, you pluck at heartstrings, you appeal to the emotion, the intellect, and the libido of your audience. When the movie is complete, the studio marketing department plays the game, as well. The object of the game is to get butts in theater seats. On a slightly more high-flown level, the object is to engage, stimulate, and please your audience to the extent that they feel gratified by the experience — and tell their friends about the little game you’re playing so that they can buy tickets, too. And the filmmakers find out whether they’ve won when the box office receipts start coming in.

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Conspirators of Pleasure

82/100

Moviegoers who regard David Lynch as the grand master of contemporary surrealism might be pleased to make the acquaintance of the Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer, one of cinema’s greatest fantasists. Svankmajer’s newest over-the-brink creation is Conspirators of Pleasure, the absorbing story of an obsessive handful of hardcore sexual fetishists whose lives intersect and dance around one other in serendipitous fashion. Continue reading

Lisbon Story

60/100
Rüdiger Vogler in Lisbon Story

If the cinematic marketplace is ever more dominated by “high concept” cinema, I guess I find myself particularly taken by what must be the “low concept” film. High concept is this: “Die Hard on board the President’s plane.” “Jodie Foster meets space aliens.” And a low concept might be this one: “Film soundman travels to Portugal to add soundtrack to silent film, finds director has vanished, wanders streets with mic and tape deck, chases mosquito, listens to music, talks to children, expounds on the nature of cinema.”

And that, in a nutshell, is Lisbon Story, the 1994 film from director Wim Wenders, who cut his teeth as one standard bearer of the “new German cinema” that flourished in the 1970s and early 1980s. After three years, Lisbon Story has finally been picked up for distribution by Fox Lorber and recently enjoyed its U.S. theatrical premiere in New York City. The film is so low-key that in an arid summer of things that go pop, bang, rumble and woosh, it’s absolutely refreshing on its own terms.

Wenders regular Rudiger Vogler plays Philip Winter, seen in the first reel driving across Europe to help salvage a film that his director friend Friedrich has been shooting in Lisbon with an old hand-cranked silent film camera. On his arrival at Friedrich’s house, Philip finds not the director but instead a passle of children carrying video cameras everywhere they go. He also stumbles across a recording session by Portuguese group Madredeus (playing themselves), who are also contributing to the unfinished film. Philip spends much of his time hunched over a Movieola looking at Friedrich’s raw footage and then hitting the streets to record ambient sound on location. Back at the house, he sleeps in Friedrich’s bed and reads animatedly to himself from the director’s library of books (notably poetry by Lisbon native Fernando Pessoa).

It’s sort of a sequel to Wenders’ 1983 The State of Things (which starred Bauchau as a director named Friedrich who traveled to Los Angeles to hunt down his producer), but it shares thematic elements with 1991’s Until the End of the World (in which Vogler portrayed a private investigator also named Philip Winter). Like The State of Things, Lisbon Story is a personal examination of the filmmaking process. And like Until the End of the World, it’s an affirmation of the power of the film image (equated, I believe, with imagination, or “dreams”) and a refutation of the seductive idea that video images — the ultimate “verité,” perhaps — can somehow show us truth. When Winter catches up with Friedrich, he finds that his director friend has lost the faith, discarding his movie camera in favor of a fleet of video cameras that record candid pictures of the city at nominal cost, and that can therefore be deployed at random to capture a “pure” image, unspoiled from being looked upon by human eyes. It then falls on Winter to mount an amiable defense of the act of filmmaking itself, lest Friedrich be forever lost to the world of cinema.

Wenders’ wide-eyed fascination with locations continues — Lisbon Story is a mesmerizing portrait of the Portuguese capital, just as Wings of Desire memorialized a divided Berlin, or Paris, Texas showed us the American west through a European’s eyes. There’s something hypnotic about Wenders’ directorial style, and especially his way with imagery. No matter how trite his dialogue, or how strained his situations, it’s enough to simply gaze upon a Wenders film, and I can gaze over and over again.

The script, however, could have used some work. Wenders had the help of a poet, Peter Handke, when crafting his still-gorgeous Wings of Desire. (The less said about purported non-sequel Faraway, So Close, the better.) Australian novelist Peter Carey was on-hand to help make something resembling a narrative out of the sprawling and problematic Until the End of the World. But on Lisbon Story, Wenders is the sole credited screenwriter, and it seems that his dialogue suffers accordingly. For example, when Philip takes a house key from the lovely singer from Madredeus, he asks her, “Is this the key to your heart, as well?” It’s charming in part because it’s clumsy, but it’s unbecoming of a film that’s mostly assured in its imagery and purpose. A certain heavy-handedness is on display in long scenes where Philip stretches out in bed, leafing through Friedrich’s books and carrying on an imaginary conversation with him. Later, his characters embark on an all-too-literal discussion of the nature of moving images. All in all, Lisbon Story too often violates the cherished literary rule of “show, don’t tell.” Wenders could hardly be more sincere, or more likable, but the dime-store film theory is unnecessary in a movie that works best when it’s least aware of itself.

Face/Off

91/100
Nicolas Cage (left) and John Travolta in Face/Off

Writing in The Nation in 1944, James Agee mused on writer/director Preston Sturges’ success in ushering The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek past the censors of the day and onto American movie screens. Morgan’s Creek is a comedy about small town girl Trudy Kockenlocker, who sneaks into a dance with a bunch of soldiers from a nearby army base. They’re whooping it up one last time before shipping off to fight overseas. In a decidedly unwholesome plot twist, Trudy sleeps with one of the soldiers and is made pregnant — but she was so sloshed at the time that she can’t remember who the father was! Continue reading

My Best Friend’s Wedding

38/100

At this writing, My Best Friend’s Wedding seems poised to become the breakout hit of the summer of 1997. Holy counterprogramming, Batman — it looks like audiences have already grown a little weary of dinosaur attacks, mad bombers, and Nic Cage with his shirt off. Funny thing is, while it seems like My Best Friend’s Wedding could hardly be further from Batman & Robin on the summer movies spectrum, it’s interesting to compare the two. While Gotham City is “dark” by default, My Best Friend’s Wedding suffers from an unconvincing sunniness. B&R has more lame one-liners than you can count, while MBFW is overwhelmingly bland and every bit as silly. In its defense, I should note that MBFW didn’t cost as much as B&R, and doesn’t make nearly as much noise. Choose your poison, gentle reader — it’s just that time of year.

Beautifully photographed by journeyman cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs, My Best Friend’s Wedding goes down easily enough, although the early scenes rely on Julia Roberts’ skills as a comedienne and are thus dangerously insubstantial. As our story opens, we learn that Julianne Potter (Roberts) and a fellow named Michael O’Neal (Dermot Mulroney) are longtime friends — and onetime lovers. The love affair was broken off, but the friendship has endured. And, at one of those silly moments that may be familiar to young lovers, they promised one another that if neither of them had walked down the aisle by the age of 28, the two of them would be married after all.

On the verge of her 28th birthday, Jules gets a phone call that she assumes is a desperate Michael eager to cash in his matrimonial chips. But when she rings him back for a chat, she falls out of the bed — he’s calling to ask her to come to Chicago, where he’s marrying the lovely, wealthy Kimmy Wallace (Cameron Diaz, who makes a pretty but otherwise unremarkable bride). Naturally, it’s only now that Julianne realizes how much Michael has meant to her all these years. Overcome by jealousy, she flies to Chicago with malicious intentions — she wants to break up the happy couple and make Michael realize that she, not Kimmy, is the one for him.

Too bad for the movie that it’s hard ever to identify with Julianne’s singlemindedly selfish quest. Instead, she just seems to be in denial from square one — Roberts is actually playing one of the thickest characters in American movies so far this year. You just want to yell at the screen: “Get a grip!” Roberts looks better than she has in years — accordingly, one scene has her standing around in her underwear — but her performance is so flat you wish somebody would jab her in the ass just to get a rise out of her.

As her beloved Michael, Dermot Mulroney has a face that’s about as expressive as a leather glove and a voice to match. Better she should ditch this loser for her handsome friend George — as played by Rupert Everett (Cemetery Man), he’s a sight for sore eyes. Of all the cast members, Everett is the one consummate professional, and when he joins the party briefly in Chicago, he coaxes both Roberts and Diaz to giddy heights — with Mulroney consigned, thankfully, to watch from the sidelines.

Unfortunately for Jules, George is gay. Ever the sensible counselor, he urges Jules to simply confess her abiding love for Michael. Instead, Jules winds up introducing George as her fiance in a desperate bid to make Michael as jelaous of George as she is of Kimmy. Appalled, he decides to get back at her by hamming it up — groping her in the back of a cab and doing lewd things with his tongue — in hysterical fashion. As George fabricates the details of an impossible affair, this romantic comedy soars — until it crashes and burns with a self-consciously “spontaneous” singalong of “I Say a Little Prayer.” (I’ve never seen the director’s previous Muriel’s Wedding, but I’m told it relied on Abba in the same way this movie relies on Dionne Warwick, Burt Bacharach, and, um, karaoke.) The whole movie’s kind of like that, with a full complement of pretty good ideas ruined by sloppy execution. Fortunately, Everett is back to help sew things up in the closing scenes, adding a touch of much-needed elegance that’s likely to make you remember the movie a little more fondly than it probably deserves.

Screenwriter/producer Ronald Bass also wrote the implausible but winning Dangerous Minds. This film has a similar problem — the actual story can’t make good on the promise of the film’s high concept without flipping our common sense switches. For instance: a key plot contrivance involves Julianne’s unauthorized use of Kimmy’s father’s computer to forge an email message to Michael’s employer. (What she types into the computer is very clearly not an email address at all, but that’s beside the point.) Realizing that what she is about to do is spiteful, destructive, and altogether reprehensible, Julianne decides not to send the email after all. The computer asks her if she wants to “delete” the email or “save it for later.” Exhibiting truly incomprehensible stupidity, Jules quite deliberately decides toleave the forged email on the bride’s father’s computer. I was completely baffled. Why would she do that? Maybe that was actually her computer after all? Does she want to wait until after the wedding and send it then? Does she want the computer’s owner to find the forged email and assume someone else wrote it? Or, deep down inside, does she really want to be found out? The answer is none of the above — it is simply essential to the climax of the film that the email be left on the computer. Surely a movie with a forehead-smacker as big as this one could have made use of a good script doctor. (Maybe Bass the producer nixed the idea on behalf of Bass the writer?)

The real shame is that this is ultimately a screwball comedy that’s decidedly lacking in screwballs — Julianne, Michael, and even Kimmy are all so middle-of-the-road it’s impossible to tell whether any of them would really make a good couple. Other things it’s lacking: witty dialogue, winning performances (with the big exception of Everett, who could easily see this turn into an Oscar nomination), and the stripe of ingenious situational comedy that can turn a shallow character into someone worth caring about. What it’s got going for it is a single gentle lesson on a universal truth — we change, the people we love change, and drifting apart can be painful. Of course, if you’re fully cognizant of all that on the way into the theater, the ending of My Best Friend’s Wedding is simply a foregone conclusion.

The Fifth Element

Milla Jovovich in The Fifth Element

The Fifth ElementI hate to suggest that viewers should check their brains at the door to enjoy a movie, but I’m afraid that sentiment serves both as a warning and a recommendation where The Fifth Element is concerned.

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Gun Crazy

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There comes a point where the act of criticism breaks down, and I’d be

hard-pressed to tell you exactly why I think Peggy Cummins is just

awesome as Annie Laurie Starr in Gun Crazy.

She’s a little awkward — in every scene, if you’re listening

carefully, you can hear her trying to squelch her native British

accent. But it’s not an impediment to her performance, which is as raw

and sensuous as they come. Through much of the movie, Cummins redefines

the relationship between sex and violence, eyes afire, mouth agape,

bright gobbets of pure sex dripping from her open lips.

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