The L.A. Movie Project: Elimination Round 1

So you set out to identify 25 films that, to your mind, provide the definitive Los Angeles experience. That means you have to watch a lot of movies that don’t make the grade.

Here’s a progress report on those so far that have fallen short:

The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) dir. by Vincente Minelli.

This melodrama, told in flashback, details how a ruthless producer (Kirk Douglas) manipulates the careers of a director, an actress, and a screenwriter, and served as an early indictment of the Hollywood studio system. Douglas is strong in the role, but the boozing Lana Turner character, in particular, didn’t work for me, nor did Dick Powell’s Southern writer.

All of it was a bit more soapy than I care for, but hey, it was the 50s, so that’s what you’re going to get. As a critique of Hollywood, it suffers in comparison to Sunset Boulevard, released two years earlier.

This film holds the record for most Academy Awards (five) without being nominated for Best Picture.

Barton Fink (1991) dir. by Joel Coen

A film that stubbornly refuses to grow on me, something that would likely would please the Coen brothers. Looking back at a post I wrote about Burn After Reading, I noted then that the Coens’ high standards are held against them. But in this case, I’d say they are given the benefit of their doubt for their cinematic pretensions.

Like A Serious Man (2008), this movie appears to be engineered to frustrate, and like that film, Barton Fink is layered with symbolism, so much so that, in my estimation, the narrative almost collapses under the weight. Those two films also share similar protagonists, and like Larry Gopnik, Fink is an inert  presence, to whom terrible, purposeless things happen, but who refuses to draw any meaning from them.

More often than not, the central figures in Coen films don’t evolve, and the brothers have often been accused of having a bleak view both of their own cinematic creations and of humanity itself. They don’t propel the action of the film; they’re more often dragged through it, sometimes literally. (Lebowski may be the best example.) That’s why the Coens are always called “absurdists.” Life is a joke, but a cosmic one.

Barton Fink, however, is an ambitious work that attempts to say something about art and commerce. The question remains whether the film is a sendup of writers (and by extension directors) who consider themselves artists, as well as the left-wing intelligensia, or whether the movie is a more sober look at the pitfalls of commercialism and selling out.

The irony is thick and likely intentional: John Turturro’s Fink is the object of ridicule in the film, pompously defending the common man even as he exhibits a near total lack of interest in anyone besides himself. His work (“the cry of the fishmongers”) is laden with caricature.

Yet the Coens have often been accused of precisely the same thing–and the effect, at least in Barton Fink, is doubly alienating.

Changeling (2008) dir. by Clint Eastwood

Reviewed here.

Crips and Bloods: Made in America (2008) dir. by Stacy Peralta

An informative, but ultimately unsatisfying documentary about the rise of Los Angeles’s two famous turf gangs. It vividly documents the institutional racism that help turn South Central L.A. into a dilapidated war zone and human toll 40 years of street battles has taken, taking its cameras into those neighborhood so we can witness the devastation up close.

But the film sometimes feels as if it’s lacking context–and it does little to visit the world outside South Central to examine the gangs’ role in the drug trade.

Criss Cross (1949) dir. by Robert Siodmak

A film noir filmed on location in the Bunker Hill neighborhood of downtown L.A., this potboiler features a young and winning Burt Lancaster trying to get over former flame Anna, played by Yvonne DeCarlo. His obsession leads him into an alliance with mobster Slim (Dan Duryea).

The Angels Flight hillside railway can be viewed through the window of a since-leveled building in a scene where an armored-car robbery is planned.

Cutter’s Way (1981) dir. by Ivan Passar

A highly underrated paranoiac thriller set in Santa Barbara, featuring a headlining performance by John Heard, as a crippled, alcoholic Vietnam vet who suspects a conspiracy at the heart of the town’s power structure. It’s a 70’s-style drama transposed into the early years of the Reagan administration and turns even more effective as a result.

Jeff Bridges plays a callow beach bum, a precursor to Jeff Lebowski, but Heard  rager drives the film.

DOA (1950) dir. by Rudolph Mate

A classic film noir, a sweaty, combustible Edmond O’Brien searches frantically in San Francisco and Los Angeles for the man who poisoned him.

The film opens with a famous tracking shot of O’Brien walking down a corridor to the LAPD desk in City Hall, and O’Brien later confronts his killer in LA’s Bradbury Building, which would later be used famously in Blade Runner.

But for me, the most interesting sequence was the one set at a club in Fisherman’s Wharf where O’Brien listens to a black R&B band, five years before rock n’ roll would reshape the American landscape.

DOA is the highest of high concepts, but was executed in a somewhat clumsy manner.

He Walked By Night (1947) dir. by (the immortal) Alfred L. Werker

An early by-the-book police procedural and an influence on everything from Dragnet to CSI, this otherwise unremarkable film is notable its sociopathic antagonist played by Richard Baseheart, an early take on wily serial killer. The third act involves a chase scene in the L.A. sewer system, similar to the one in the final reel of The Third Man.

Into the Night (1985) dir. by John Landis

Cuckholded insomniac Jeff Goldblum links up with livewire Michelle Pfeiffer in a comedy-thriller that I recalled fondly from my college days, but one that really doesn’t hold up. Goldblum is his usually low-fi, befuddled self while a young Pfeiffer is immensely appealing. You can see movie stardom awaiting her around the bend.

But the plot is full of schtick and jarring elements, the film is overly–and needlessly–bloody. And the cameos of Landis’ director friends is distracting. A clean miss.

LA Story (1991) dir. by Mick Jackson

Steve Martin’s love letter to Los Angeles has become an iconic representation of the city–and more than two decades later, it’s hard to recall whether Martin helped establish a genre with jokes about guns on the freeway, infinite varieties of cappuccino, weather, and health foods, or he simply became a leading proponent of them.

But the film simply tries to too hard to be quirky, especially with Victoria Tennant’s character. The most fully realized performance in the film (as annoying as it may be) is by Sarah Jessica Parker as, if I can spell it right, SanDeE*.

Less Than Zero (1987) dir. by Marek Kanievska

A literary phenomenon by Bret Easton Ellis watered down into a “Don’t Do Drugs” that could have borne Nancy Reagan’s seal of approval. Most interesting now for the on-the-edge performance of a young Robert Downey Jr., with some good malevolent supporting work from (naturally) James Spader. But Jami Gertz makes for an improbable wrong-path wastrel, while Andrew McCarthy would soon be dancing with mannequins.

Still, it endures, largely as  a well-preserved artifact of the 1980s, chronicling the plight of errant Beverly Hills and Bel Air rich kids with some rich detail.

Lethal Weapon (1987) dir. by Richard Donner

Reviewed here.

Mildred Pierce (1945) dir. by Michael Curtiz

Likely the film on this list that came closest to cracking the top 30, this film comes advertised as a noir, but make no mistake, it’s a melodrama through and through. The familiar tale of a entrepreneurial business woman and her spoiled, no-good daughter was recently remade by Todd Haynes for HBO.

Locales range from a beachfront house to a Pasadena mansion. This film marked my introduction to Joan Crawford–the real one, not Faye Dunaway’s hanger-hater–and, what can I say? I don’t get it. But Michael Curitz’ noirish black-and-white direction, which contrasted the look of sunny Southern California, would provide a template for other daylight neo-noirs such as Chinatown.

Repo Man (1984) dir. by Alex Cox

A virtual stew of Reagan-era alienation mixed with L.A.’s punk rock scene, Repo Man deserves its status as a cult classic. Few films so boldly announced that the 70s were gone for good. (Witness the turn of Otto’s parents from hippies to mindless followers of televangelists.)

Very similar, in its own L.A. way, to 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause. Both films dealt with young dropouts groping for meaning and connection in a world where they felt invisible. (Think, too, about both films’ use of galactic imagery and about the lethality of the outside.)

Repo Man was one of the many 80s films to take on the subject of vanishing prosperity and the crumbling of the American dream. I’m wondering where the chronicles of lower-and-middle class struggles during the current downturn are? I’m sure they’ve exist, although likely not in mainstream form.

Skin Deep (1989) dir. by Blake Edwards

A movie I saw when it came out–and of course it all seemed rather ribald and glamorous in its own way. A typical Blake Edwards picture, a boozy writer screwing his way through life. What could be bad about that?

On second viewing, of course, the darkness of the film takes hold. But at the end of the day, despite its cry-for-help sequences,  it’s fluffy–nobody loses an eye–and it has the happy ending it deserves, even if it doesn’t seem terribly realistic. In one very real sense, it was the 80s version of Californication. (Come for condom scene, stay for the pathos!) The film does well to take advantage of John Ritter’s gift for physical comedy. He carries the picture better than you would expect.

10 (1980) dir. by Blake Edwards

More Edwards. Reviewed here.

Tequila Sunrise (1988) dir. by Robert Towne

What went wrong? You had the writer of Chinatown. Two appealing male leads. A young superstar actress in the making (Michelle Pfeiffer again). And a good helping of steamy sax-infused sex–standard for 80s films, I think.  But something did go off track. The cocktail ends up bland. Robert Towne was shooting for a modern neo-noir in his tale of Two Old Friends on Opposites Sides of the Law, but there’s very little tension, or atmosphere, or anything. And any time Pfeiffer isn’t around, you check your watch waiting for her to come back.

Part of the problem is that Mel Gibson makes a lousy drug dealer (also a lousy parent, but that’s a different story). There are no hard edges. You feel like Gibson and cop Kurt Russell (styled up like Pat Riley) could resolve their differences over a round of golf and a couple of brews at the 19th Hole.  In fact, it’s more fun to watch Russell give I-used-to-be-in-everything JT Walsh a hard time than sit through his trading barbs and threats with Gibson. And while Pfeiffer is dolled up like a 80s version of a femme fatale, she turns out to be much more femme sans consequence.

This is the classic example of a film to which a viewer brings a lot of goodwill–largely because of its leads (or its poster). Hollywood, especially classic Hollywood, of course, has banked on star power. And then the movies slowly siphons away that benefit of the doubt for the better part of two hours, whereupon you sit back and wonder, just what was that about?

Watching it again for the first time in years, I was struck by the bizarre places Raul Julia takes his character. He’s the only one in the film having any fun–and the movie benefits, and turns all the stranger, when he enters. In that sense, it seems rather similar to His Kind of Woman, which I recently screened.

Still, I’ll watch Lethal Weapon again (and again) if I want a fix of 80s Mel.


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