Chinatown (1974) Movie Review

I love stories about LA. It’s one of the reasons I chose LA Films as the genre for Movie Rob’s Genre Guesstimation. I just reviewed the film I recommended Rob watch (Shopgirl) so today I thought I’d check in on a classic LA Film, Chinatown.

In Chinatown, Jake Gittes is investigating the murder of an official from the Water Company. During his investigation, he discovers a hidden plot by the company to cheat thousands of farmers out of water that was promised to them (among other devious truths). The story shows that there is corruption and deception in everything. In the movie, Gittes is left dealing with betrayal and disappointment. He has come from a tragic loss in his former job to have the same thing happen all over again. He tries to prevent someone from getting hurt and ends up making sure that’s exactly what happens. Jake gets pushed around in a web of intricate lies and it really is a sign of how corrupt Hollywood and Los Angeles were in the 1930s. It shows the darker side of LA history.

The cinematography and production design of Chinatown allow the audience to view what Los Angeles and the rest of Southern California looked like in the 30s and 40s. The buildings, cars, clothes, shops, etc. are all made to look and feel like Los Angeles in the past. It is shot on actual locations all around Los Angeles County so it really feels like you’re right there with the characters. It even has the racial segregation and dried up river.

In keeping with Noir tradition, the film delves deeper into the idea of disappointed hopes through the use of shadow effects, a femme fatale, and a broken down detective who is weary and searching for something better in a city gone to crime. Chinatown uses this style to show the desperation of some people to find hope in the city after everything has gone wrong for them. Gittes loses in the end. He’s watched an innocent die and come face to face with pure evil and watched it win in the end. Chinatown shows that in Los Angeles dreams die and people lie. It isn’t a pretty side of the city but it might be a more truthful one. Chinatown is both a classic Noir, and a classic LA Film.

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Shopgirl (2005) Movie Review

I was asked by Movie Rob to pick October’s theme for Genre Guesstimation and since it’s nearing the end of the month, I figured I’d better get a few reviews up.

I picked LA Films as my genre, which I thought was a fitting choice seeing as I’m an LA native, and love films based on, or set in Los Angeles. I also like that it can include films from other genres.

Rob also asked that I recommend a film from the genre. It was a bit tough thinking of something he hadn’t already seen, or reviewed but in the end I suggested Shopgirl. Based on a novel of the same name, written by Steve Martin, it is a romantic drama that tells the story of a young woman working and living in Los Angeles, and the relationships she develops with two very different men.

Now, I may be cheating a little but I wrote an essay on this story back in college, and I found it on my computer, so I thought I’d share an edited version of that as my review.

As I watched Shopgirl, a thought kept running through my mind. People have detached themselves from others in their attempts to get ahead and keep up with the demands of a rushed life. They bury themselves in finding material success and when it comes to emotional satisfaction they are at a loss at what to do. They get so caught up with the thought of making a name for themselves that they can no longer function efficiently in any sort of non-business relationship. The idea is greater magnified in large cities where people are surrounded by the pressure to be successful. Shopgirl is a perfect representation of this idea of loneliness in the big city. The main character, Mirabelle, is a symbol of those who come to Los Angeles to find great success and happiness and end up finding only marginal success and loneliness.

Mirabelle has come to California to be an artist but works at the glove counter in a high-end department store. She makes just better than minimum wage and she has close to no social life. She is surrounded by people and does not know how to reach out to anyone. Her friends are hardly worth keeping; they leave her stranded most of the time and her love life is almost as non-eventful. She begins a rocky relationship with Jeremy who is about her age but very immature. They have some odd interactions that usually end with Jeremy making a complete fool of himself. Mirabelle then begins a relationship with the much older Mr. Ray Porter. However, they both expect different things from the relationship and communication is not always perfect which hurts them both in the end.

These interactions that Mirabelle has with others demonstrate how, even though situations may be awkward, people will still put themselves in that position just to feel close to someone. Even within a large city that is full of life and people, sometimes there are those who are unable to connect with others. They have detached themselves so much that they have to create “accidents” or awkward situations just to be acknowledged and responded to. Loneliness is a major theme in Shopgirl and there is a perfect example of this idea when Mirabelle calls Jeremy at one point for the sole reason of going to bed with him in order to have him hold her afterwards. They go through with the act because they are both social outcasts who are so desperate for human touch that they will do almost anything.

Martin’s ability to capture the true thoughts and feelings of his characters is amazing. I think what makes this film so worthwhile is the complicity of the characters and their own epiphanies about their actions. After their relationship has ended Ray comes to realize what he did wrong with Mirabelle. He only wanted a part of her. She wanted more. She wanted to be loved and cared for and he only wanted what would satisfy him physically. Their relationship could only end in the way that it did because neither of them was truly honest with what they were searching for. Only after the fact do they realize how they have inevitably set themselves up for disappointment. In the same fashion as this discovery, Jeremy makes his own discovery about himself. He goes through a change while he is on the road. When he comes back, he has matured to the level that Mirabelle is at. He has reached a point where he and she want the same thing. Jeremy is finally able to give Mirabelle what she needs and in return he gets the companionship he is searching for. They are both able to give some of themselves in return for some part of each other. This adds a nice touch to the end of the story. Mirabelle has found someone to love who will love her back and Ray has realized that what he is searching for cannot be satisfied with meaningless physical relationships.

Shopgirl shows LA in an interesting light. It makes casual references to the sites and restaurants and streets that everyday LA inhabitants visit and it seems to praise them. Yet, at the same time it criticizes the materialism of the city and its people. It shows Mirabelle’s ease at going through her daily routine but contrasts that with her deep depression. It is contrasts Mirabelle, who is a shy wallflower with her coworker Lisa, who has completely taken advantage of the material side of LA.

Shopgirl is the story of finding yourself in a place that takes the opportunity for identity away. It is the story of finding connection when it seemed impossible. It is the story of learning and growing in a city that restricts and limits people to a certain lifestyle. Mirabelle has found happiness in the end because she has learned from her mistakes and Jeremy has grown up. Both have come to understand the need for human touch in a big city where the opportunity to connect with someone does not happen often. So often people forget that there are others who go through the same transitions and pains that they go through. There is always someone who knows what it is like to feel lost and lonely in such a foreign place.

Time After Time (1979) Movie Review

This was a much more successful, and enjoyable experience of the Malcolm McDowell double feature I went to in June.

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In Time After Time Malcolm McDowell plays H.G. Wells, who has created a time machine that Jack the Ripper uses to evade capture. Wells must then pursue the serial killer across time, eventually arriving in San Francisco in the 1970s. The film also stars David Warner, and Mary Steenburgen, to whom McDowell was married. He actually made a very sweet comment during the Q&A that his favorite memory from filming was meeting and falling in love with his now ex-wife.


 


This film was a lot of fun to watch. The idea of H.G. Wells hunting Jack the Ripper is interesting enough on its own, adding in the time travel element kicks it up a notch. It was great to see these two characters react so differently to the new time period, and I thought both actors were good. McDowell was incredibly charming as the slightly bumbling but earnest Wells, and Warner was cool and calculating as Stevenson. Steenburgen was such a bright presence any time she was on screen and you could practically feel the chemistry between her and McDowell radiating off the screen.

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Seeing McDowell as H.G. Wells was a fascinating experience because I’m so used to him in darker, more disturbing roles. Here he got to play innocent and earnest, and I have to say he was quite convincing on both accounts. I highly enjoyed the film, and was glad that it was the second of the double feature as it allowed me to end the night on a high note.


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Netflix Movie Review: The Highwaymen

Finally sat down to watch this a few months ago and really enjoyed it. I can’t believe Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson never worked together before. Their chemistry was great, and one of the best things about the film.

This, of course, tells the story of the two lawmen that eventually tracked down and killed Bonnie and Clyde. It follows both of them as they come out of retirement, and piece together when and how to catch the infamous duo.

The movie looked fantastic, which is almost a negative thing because I didn’t get a chance to see this in theaters. I know it had a limited release but I never saw any showings for it, and thus was stuck watching it on my TV at home. So, while it looked good, I bet it would have looked even better on a bigger screen. This is one of my frustrations with Netflix films.

The story was told in an intriguing fashion, with the messaging and deeper themes well established without beating you over the head. This film definitely has an opinion on the celebrity status of the two criminals, and I think there were a couple of effective moments that drive that point home. One choice made was that the reveal of Bonnie and Clyde only happens at the end of the film. By not showing them earlier, the message about destructive criminal celebrity is made more effective. The film aims to not glorify them the way history has. These two were killers, and many people try to make them out to be Robin Hood type characters when they weren’t. This film, rather than glorify their violent history turns the lens quite literally on their victims, and the viciousness of their crimes.

The film is rather long. It meanders frequently, and although I mentioned it looks great, we do get maybe one too many wide shots of open country. Sometimes the slow pacing allows for a a bit of character development and a good performance piece but it definitely could have chopped off fifteen to twenty minutes.

Overall, this was a solid film. It’s low on action, strong on story and performances. Under lesser performers the film would have felt dragged down due to the deliberate pacing. It is thanks to Harrelson and Costner, who are heavy weights more than capable of carrying this film, that it works as well as it does.