Tag Archive for 'Noir'

Aquarius, Season 1

Aquarius, Season 1 (8/23/15) NBC (2015 **1/2) Created by John McNamara, starring David Duchovny, Emma Dumont, Grey Damon and Gethin Anthony as Charles Manson. 13 episodes, originally aired 5/28/15 – 8/22/15. A Los Angeles homicide detective’s life runs parallel with and sometimes crosses that of a young Charles Manson. When I watched the final episode, I felt a certain sense of betrayal. This show was presented as a miniseries, and so I had this expectation that over the course of 13 weeks it would tell a self-contained story. Yeah, I felt like a real sap, expecting a resolution which never came. Instead, it ended (and this isn’t really giving anything away) with multiple cliffhangers, none of which it turns out I care enough about to tune in come the fall, assuming the series has been picked up. My favorite part of the show was David Duchovny; I liked his character as a middle-aged WWII veteran cop struggling to be enlightened in spite of his own built-in generational limitations. I hadn’t watched him in Californication (2007-2014), but maybe I should remedy that. BecauseAquarius is a largely fictionalized drama based loosely on a period in Manson’s life, I spent a fair amount of my time wondering how much, if any, resemblance there was between the on-screen events and historical events. There was a shocking scene late in the season that I found particularly egregious: the fictional Manson dopes his mother with LSD, then presents her for “communal enjoyment.” Did anything even close to that really happen?

True Detective, Season 2

True Detective, Season 2 (8/19/15) HBO (2015 ***) Created by Nic Pizzolatto, starring Vince Vaughn, Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, Taylor Kitsch and Kelly Reilly. 8 episodes, originally aired 6/21/15 – 8/9/15. Three police officers with several tons of psychological baggage between them team up with a mob boss on the rocks to solve a bizarre murder. In other words: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Vinci, California.” I was generally aware that this season was critically lambasted for various reasons, and so I scrambled to watch the series shortly after it had aired while doing my best to avoid spoilers. When I first heard Vince Vaughn had been cast in the second season I wondered if it indicated a significant tonal shift. But no, the dark tone of the first season carried into the second, unrelated storyline, and I personally found Vaughn’s intense, often bloody, performance to be my favorite part of the show. As for the critics, I still haven’t gone back to see what their main beefs were, though Entertainment Weekly referred to the season as “crappy.” Maybe the ultimate problem was one of variety: All the main characters were tortured souls, and for different reasons, but taken as a whole it seemed like the same repetitive chord being played on the piano.

True Detective, Season 1

True Detective, Season 1 (10/27/14) HBO (2014 ***1/2) Created by Nic Pizzolatto, starring Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson and Michelle Monaghan. 8 episodes, originally aired 1/12/14 – 3/9/14. Detectives Rust Cohle and Marty Hart set aside their vast differences to solve a series of serial killings nearly twenty years past. I loved the extended time scope (1995-2012), showing the changing characters. And “characters” is definitely the operative word. Most of my interest in this series was based on the contrasts and conflicts between Hart and Cohle, though I freely admit that McConaughey’s character was the more intriguing of the pair. The highlight of the season by far was an insanely well-executed 6-minute tracking shot in the fourth episode, “Who Goes There,” that reminded me strongly of combat video game footage. As for the season’s conclusion, I’m afraid my feelings are mixed: While I respected its poetry, it wasn’t as satisfying as I had hoped for, given the strength of the rest of the season.

Veronica Mars

Veronica Mars (9/27/14) HBO (2014 ***) Directed and co-written by Rob Thomas, based on the characters he created in the TV show by the same name, starring Kristen Bell, Jason Dohring, Enrico Colantoni and Gaby Hoffman. When former teen private eye Veronica Mars’ old boyfriend is accused of murder, she returns home to Neptune, California to help clear his name… and attend her ten year high school reunion. I’ll be honest: I did not watch Veronica Mars (the show) when it was originally aired, though I did watch a handful of the first episodes several years ago as research for a book I was working on at the time. I liked what I’d watched and made a mental note to myself to watch it on Netflix someday. And I may yet do that. Watching the feature-length followup, it was clear several times that I would have gotten much more out of it had I watched the series. And so I can only really judge it based on its stand-alone merits, since I wasn’t watching it from the point of view of a fan. As a stand-alone theatrical film, it quite honestly felt like an extended episode of a TV detective show, and never quite felt like a “real” movie. Then again, I didn’t really expect that. Veronica Mars (the film) was famously financed via a Kickstarter campaign started by director/creator Rob Thomas, which made $5.7M for a $2M goal. As such, it represents a milestone in crowdsourcing and film financing, one that will undoubtedly affect the way certain fan favorite films get made in the future.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (3D)

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (3D) (9/22/14) DWA Screening (2014 ***1/4) Directed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller, based on the graphic novels by Frank Miller, starring Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba, Josh Brolin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Powers Boothe and Eva Green as the titular (in more ways than one) Ava. Marv, Dwight, Johnny and the other hard-boiled citizens of Sin City live out their lives in a set of sometimes-intersecting storylines. This is a sequel to a film that came out nearly ten years ago, and I had found the highly-stylized dialogue in the original jarring. That particular aspect of the film made so much of an impression on me that I was mentally prepared this time around. Though I was largely immune, based on the occasional chuckles I heard from the crowd I saw it with, the sequel carried that tradition forward. The film and storylines were sometimes cheesy but never boring. I loved the visual style of the film; there really is nothing else like it, and there was no shortage of eye candy, not the least of which was Eva Green, who spent at least half of her time onscreen in some state of undress. I’m also very glad I got to see the film in 3D, and would highly recommend it to anyone with the option of seeing it that way. The 3D combined so beautifully with the stylized shot compositions, and it was obvious that great care had been taken to compose for depth. Finally, some film-geek part of me positively loves the fact that the film was shot and edited by Rodriguez himself, though I to wonder how his directorial collaboration worked with creator and comics legend Frank Miller.

Fargo, Season 1

Fargo, Season 1 (6/18/14) FX (2014 ***1/2) Created and written by Noah Hawley, based on the 1996 film by Joel and Ethan Coen, starring Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, Allison Tolman and Colin Hanks. 10 episodes, originally aired 4/15/14 – 6/17/14. Minnesota insurance salesman Lester Nygaard makes a deal with the devil in the form of a highly-skilled hit man named Lorne Malvo. Of all the various permutations of how film properties get turned into TV shows, this one was unusual: It would seem that the pitch was to take the setting, tone and some of the characters from the 1996 classic by the Coen brothers, but discard its major plot elements, creating an entirely new spine upon which to construct a fresh 10-hour narrative. I feel that Fargo, which was advertised as a miniseries, got stronger as it went along. In its first few episodes, the people responsible for the show seemed to be trying a little too hard to capture an affected, quirky Twin Peaks vibe. While I’m a card-carrying (not really) Twin Peaks fan from its original run, and I didn’t exactly hate it, the overtness of the attempt was distracting. Eventually, as the show found its own solid tonal footing, that was cast aside for the most part, and it begain to really grow on me. Still, in one of the later episodes Billy Bob Thornton, who played Lorne Malvo with a level of deliciousness that is sadly rare in TV or film, delivered a nod to Peaks‘ Special Agent Dale Cooper that made me smile with the line: “Nothing good ever came from a slice of cherry pie.” As I mentioned, Fargo was presented as a mini-series event, and so it came as a pleasant surprise when FX announced it would be back for another run the following year. I look forward to seeing what they do with the characters, though they’ll be hard-pressed to top an antagonist like Malvo.

The Big Lebowski

The Big Lebowski (2/11/14) IFC (1998 ***1/2) Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, starring Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, Tara Reid and Philip Seymour Hoffman. When a rich man’s wife is kidnapped, a pot-loving bowler known as “The Dude” is hired to deliver the ransom money. It’s not hard to see why this film has become such a cult classic. It has the solid structure of a classic hard-boiled detective film like The Big Sleep, but with a lot of really weird shit thrown into the narrative pot. There’s so much to love about it, especially the performances by Bridges and Goodman. Just thinking about the film makes me smile, with only one thing really bothering me: How can a man who loves Creedence hate The Eagles? That just didn’t ring true to me. While I’m not sure what the final takeaway message was (and I think that’s part of the point), I agree with Sam Elliot’s narrator character: It is comforting to know that “The Dude abides.”

The Grifters

The Grifters (8/15/13) Sundance (1990 ***1/4) Directed by Stephen Frears, based on the novel by Jim Thompson, starring Anjelica Huston, John Cusack and Annette Bening. A young man, his girlfriend and his mother form a viscous triangle, but then that’s the kind of life you lead on the grift. It had been a long time since I first saw this film, possibly in the theater upon initial release. I’m embarrassed to admit that one of the two scenes I remembered most vividly was the one in which Annette Bening appeared nude in the full-frontal variety. I also remembered the final scene between John Cusack and Anjelica Huston, though not the events leading up to it. Interestingly, this film was produced by Martin Scorsese, and it was successful as an example of classic film noir executed in a (then) contemporary time and setting.


Brick (1/23/13) Netflix (2005 ***1/2) Written and directed by Rian Johnson, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Lukas Haas, Nora Zehetner and Noah Fleiss. When his ex-girlfriend disappears after seeking his help, outcast Brendan leaps fists-a-flying into the shadowy world of a high school crime syndicate. Who knew being a teenager in San Clemente, California could be so hard-boiled? I’d heard about this movie back when it was originally released. It’s conceit was intriguing to me: A contemporary high school drama using dialogue and situations straight out of Raymond Chandler. Intriguing, yes, but it smelled to me at the time like a gimmick. After watching Rian Johnson’s Looper recently, I bumped Brick, his directorial debut, up to the top of my Netflix queue, and I’m glad I did. The whole film impressed me, all the more so because it was clearly made on a limited budget, yet achieved surprisingly good production values. I highly recommend it to any of my friends with filmmaking aspirations. The key to what made its “high school film noir” conceit work was that though the characters spoke in a decidedly stylized lingo, everyone played it completely straight. There was another influence at work here also, that of David Lynch, particularly Twin Peaks. Brick shared many story elements in common with Twin Peaks, which itself was heavily influenced by film noir. In a way, Rian Johnson managed to transcend Lynch, producing something that felt both… well, Lynchian, yet decidedly more grounded, making it somehow stronger. There’s yet a final visual allusion I didn’t understand and will have to Google: Why exactly did Lukas Haas’ character “The Pin” wear an outfit that made him look so much like Jonathan Frid as Dark Shadows‘ Barnabas Collins? What connection or purpose did that serve?

Murder, My Sweet

Murder, My Sweet (1/15/13) TCM (1944 ***) Directed by Edward Dmytryk, based on the novel by Raymond Chandler, starring Dick Powell, Claire Trevor, Anne Shirley and Mike Mazurki. Philip Marlowe gets doped up and knocked out repeatedly in his attempt to unravel a mystery involving blackmail and a stolen jade necklace. Chandler’s acerbic detective Philip Marlowe has been played by many actors over the years, most notably Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep, one of my favorite films. Dick Powell did a serviceable job, but his Marlowe never quite felt grounded in reality, and not for a moment did I feel he was in any real danger. I’d never seen this movie before, and while it’s not the best hard-boiled detective film I’ve ever seen on a story or entertainment level, I’m hard-pressed to think of a better film to watch as an example of the genre.