Monday, May 21, 2012

Picture Books: James Ellroy

Totally absorbed by Oren Moverman's Rampart over the weekend. Easily the least plot-driven film ever made from source material created by James Ellroy and that's not necessarily a bad thing. I'm a hardcore Ellroy fan, and I love the spiraling, Byzantine structure of the conspiracy webs that his characters tend to find themselves entangled in, jacked off by and generally absorbed into and shit out of like so many human batteries, but I'd be hard pressed to recall the irresolution of any of his books to you. By their conclusion I'm usually snowblind with amphetamine spiked carnal appetites and buggered by desperately, blind spiritual spelunking thru the human horrorscape of my stand in - sleazy Dave Klein, big Pete Bondurant or brutal Fritz Brown. So, yeah, the situations are interesting, but I'm not particularly driven to dissect them, it's the characters I'm so invested in.

Likewise, Rampart is less concerned with the particulars of the clusterfuck "Date Rape" Dave Brown constructs for himself than with giving us what may well be the last slice of life portrait Dave's got to spare. Woody Harrelson's uncanny physical resemblance to the Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction invites us to treat the material as a funhouse mirror self-portrait... which is of course a bullshit option. Ellroy's got a helluva track record of exploiting his darker impulses and obsessions for our entertainments and the more frank he feints at being, the more distorted and fictionalized the pieces become. The openness becomes just another mask the artist hides his true face behind.

Doesn't matter. It's riveting art.

The books are what his legacy will live and die by, but I believe that there's a large enough body of film work now to recognize the writer's (admittedly smudged) fingerprints.

Cop (1988) directed by James B. Harris script by James B. Harris from the novel Blood on the Moon by James Ellroy.

Was there ever an actor better suited to portray an Ellroy cop than James Woods? I dunno. I was awfully disappointed we didn't get the chance to see Nick Nolte give it a go in an adaptation of White Jazz, but I'd say Woods is the most natural selection we've actually seen to date. Believable asshole? Check. Believable tough guy? Check. Capably Charming? Yup. Believable and even sympathetic right-wing nut-job? Who else but Woods could do that so well? The novel Blood on the Moon was the first in Ellroy's Lloyd Hopkins series and while they contained many of what would become classic Ellroy tropes - gruesome slayings of women, fathers of daughters, corrupt-chemically-altered-pussy-hound-oedipally-obsessed-fascists-with-badges we hate to love - in retrospect, they were kid-gloves takes on themes more satisfactorily explored in The L.A. Quartet and Undworld U.S.A. Trilogy.

And perhaps that's why Cop still holds up as one of the better Ellroy-inspired films (it's comparably slight origin material). In the end it's just another slasher vs. cop flick, but it's got that sharper edge of the truly questionable and possibly psychotic cop protagonist as opposed to the simply maverick type that tend to populate this kind of populist fare going for it, plus the terrific Woods who elevates all material he touches.

Since I Don't Have You (1993) directed by Jonathan Kaplan, written by Steven Katz from the short story Since I Don't Have You by James Ellroy.

The criminally short-lived anthology Showtime series Fallen Angels featured stories by the likes of Jim Thompson, Raymond Chandler, Evan Hunter, David Goodis, Bruno Fischer, Mickey Spillane, Dashiell Hammett, Walter Mosley, Frank E. Smith, William Campbell and Cornell Woolrich adapted for the small screen by badass scribes like Scott Frank and directed by folks like Steven Soderbergh, John Dahl, Phil Joanou and even actors turned directors like the Toms Hanks and Cruise. Generally, it was kick ass shit and the fact that, other than a half-assed VHS release twenty years ago, it's disappeared from the public's grasp is just wrong.

The Ellroy story Since I Don't Have You features Leland "Buzz" Meeks narrating the tale of the time he came between his two masters Howard Hughes and Mickey Cohen whom he served simultaneously as bag-man, pimp and procurer of pornography, pills and poppy by-product. The story (available in the collection Hollywood Nocturnes) sticks out in the Ellroy canon for directly contradicting Meeks' story as told in The Big Nowhere and L.A. Confidential, but it hardly matters as it gets to the heart of his Los Angeles celebrity-gangster-vice cop vibe with something like three percent of the page count required to go through any entry in his L.A. Quartet.

As episodic television it's also a blast with Gary Busey as Meeks (and James Woods appearing again as Mickey Cohen this time) playing both sides against the middle to locate (what else) a missing woman that (of course) both men have fallen for. No bonus points for guessing what Meeks does.

L.A. Confidential (1997) directed by Curtis Hanson, written by Brian Helgeland, adapted from the novel L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy.

Who'da thunk that the director of Losin' It would be the guy to turn in the most elegant, mature, cynical and all around gorgeous take on Ellroy's material yet? The film is a high mark in the careers of Kevin Spacey, Kim Basinger and James Cromwell as well as being the big time launch of faces like Russell Crowe's, Guy Pearce's and Simon Baker's. And when you've dropped names like Danny DeVito and David Strathairn into supporting spots, it can only help. But as visually appealing and well-acted and paced as the film is, I don't think it's possible to over-emphasise the brilliant job done by the script.

The script is perhaps the greatest adaptation achievement I know of - at once getting at the heart of the material while tossing out huuuuge chunks of the book's plot and inventing plot to better serve the medium (film as opposed to novel). Need I say more than Rollo Tomassi? I didn't think so. Helgeland was the go-to guy for crime novel to script adaptations for a good stretch and tho his track record is very uneven (he adapted both Michael Connelly's Blood Work and Dennis Lehane's Mystic River for Clint Eastwood and is responsible for turning Richard Stark's The Hunter into Payback and Payback: Straight Up - two very different films, please, if you haven't seen the latter, do), he's got a lot of goodwill left to burn through for L.A. Confidential.

While Cop benefitted in comparison coming from slighter material, L.A. Confidential, the novel, was a famous artistic turning point for the author. In ambition and scope and density it was previously unparalleled in his work, and to even attempt an exercise in reduction on a lauded beast like this one takes brass balls. To pull off a work of such quality is nearly unheard of. The film stuck to Ellroy's three-pronged protagonist structure, switching the drive between the politically ambitious Edmund Exley, thuggish Bud White and celebrity addicted "Hollywood" Jack Vincennes and worked equally well if treated as a story belonging to any one of them, weaving their distinct drives into conflict and cooperation in a tale of corruption and progress equal to Chinatown.

Brown's Requiem (1998) written and directed by Jason Freeland adapted from the novel Brown's Requiem by James Ellroy.

Ellroy's first novel Brown's Requiem featured alcoholic ex-cop turned repo-man/private detective Fritz Brown taking a tail job from a freak-show caddy that leads him into a swamp of brass knuckles, booze and incest. Another selection from the lower shelves of Ellroy's ouvre, but one that I'm personally a lot more fond of than the Lloyd Hopkins titles, Brown's Requiem still benefits from that relatively low-profile, though not nearly to the degree that Cop does. I'm predisposed to approve of Michael Rooker, but I wish he'd had more to work with here. The low budget (which didn't keep Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer from feeling authentic and relevant) is felt in every aspect from the script to the costumes, but still that nasty edge elevates the straight to DVD release from 'for completists only' to 'don't change the channel if it's on in your hotel' status.

Dark Blue (2002) directed by Ron Shelton, written by David Ayer based on an original screenplay by James Ellroy.

Dark Blue suffered critically and financially from being released theatrically on the heels of Joe Carnahan's similar and superior Narc, but the ultimate failure of this (still better than average) film is it's lack of follow-through with the initial spark that ignites it. Set in 1992 Los Angeles while the city holds its breath in anticipation of a verdict in the case against the four (three white, one hispanic) city cops video-taped beating (black) motorist Rodney King after a high speed pursuit, fore-knowledge of the resulting riots - in which dozens of people lost their lives after the officers were acquitted - infuses the story of selectively-bent cop Eldon Perry's first and final crisis of conscience with a ticking clock tension that's damn near audible. Kurt Russell plays Perry as a confused dinosaur with unfinished business who senses the world turning beneath him and the chapter closing on his days of law enforcement. Perry comes from a dynasty of gun-fighter cops and Russell's previous turn as Wyatt Earp even informs the audience's perception of him - we think we don't mind this guy shooting first.

The always compelling Russell is matched by Brendan Gleeson, Jonathan Banks and Lolita Davidovich, but tonally undercut by the broad antics of Dash Mihok, Kurupt and Scott Speedman's hairdo while Ving Rhames continually strikes a single note of dour righteousness 'til unfortunately and unintentionally the viewer wishes for greater autonomy and a big blind spot for Perry and his kind if the other option is this guy.

Competing sensibilities between an escapist action flick and a blistering drama appear here not for the last time on this list. A better film would have been pitiless in the doling out of consequences for all involved and been less interested in the typical thriller-aspects of the procedural that the plot walks down, but I'm happy to re-watch this one for Russell and that fantastic sub-audible concussion of reckoning coming. Also, as a set piece, the re-created riots are plenty frightening for atmosphere.

The Black Dahlia (2006) directed by Brian De Palma written by Josh Friedman adapted from the novel The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy.

The Black Dahlia marked a significant step forward for Ellroy's craft. At the time, it was his most personal work and his second stab at writing, in a parallel fashion, about the murder of his own mother (Clandestine features a very similar killing). The pairing of Ellroy's psycho-sexual obsessiveness and period pinache with De Palma's track record of kindred material sounded like a match made in Aphrodite's asshole, but yeah, no. Nope. David Fincher was supposedly sniffing 'round this project for a long time with an eye toward turning it into a realllllly long (five plus hour?) feature digging into the dark corners of Dahlia-lore as well as Ellroy's own dark places in an unflinching X or NC-17 rating and while I understand that peoples with monies to invest in film like to see it come back to them, in retrospect it seems petty and small not to have had the balls to follow through with that vision (Fincher moved on to Zodiac when it fell through). A cable mini-series (or shit, web-series now, why the hell not?) has long seemed the natural fit for Ellroy's rich and dense material, but perhaps feeling lightening could strike twice Dahlia was green-lit as a standard approximately two hour feature.

No Rollo Tomassi this time. Instead we end up handing Fiona Shaw the thankless job of delivering the gun-wielding, 'here's how I did it and why' speech like the unenthusiastic third money shot in a tired-ass gang-bang. After that unforgivable sin, the list of comparably lesser transgressions include the Eraserhead-esque dinner scene that serves as an introduction to the Linscott family, changing Lee's death into a De Palma set piece and not making it Michael Caine in drag coming out of the shadows and never letting us feel anybody's obsession.

It's not without it's virtues either. It looks fantastic - so good, it might make an interesting silent film. Really, write a new script and post it over the visuals... (I'd love to do something similar with De Palma's Femme Fatale - re-dub the dialogue in Spanish or French and subtitle that fucker - it would be a more intriguing mess, I suspect). The shootout-discovery of the body sequence is classic De Palma, and I'm always in favor of casting Mia Kirshner. When I heard she was going to be Elizabeth Short I was very pleased. Really, why she's not a huge star is beyond me.

Street Kings (2008) directed by David Ayer written by James Ellroy, Kurt Wimmer and Jamie Moss

So all the stuff I said about Dark Blue could pretty much be said here. In the end the harsh portrait of a bad man trying to do a good job is undercut by more splashy action movie shit we've seen before. Say what you like about Keanu Reeves, I'm not hanging any blame on him for the short comings this time around. If the opening moments of Street Kings are any indication, age - gray up top, a few extra pounds around the middle - may eventually lend Reeves the extra umph his onscreen presence sometimes lacks. I'm not even sending Chris Evans any shit here, but fuckin Cedric The Entertainer does not belong in this picture. And John Corbett? Too many years as a dreamy, sensitive type are working against you, sir. Terry Crewes, Common and Jay Mohr don't step up to Forrest Whitaker's game though he's stuck in an unfortunately transparent role and Hugh Laurie just doesn't have anything to do (though somebody like Noel Gugliemi doesn't have to do anything to make a picture better - that guy is screen presence).

A big disappointment considering Ayer's obvious yen for Ellroy's vibe. Anybody who saw Training Day and Dark Blue back to back would be hard pressed to ignore the effect that working on Ellroy's script must have had on his own. Plus, Ayer's directorial debut Harsh Times showed showcased a knack for slipping some serious hard-edged emotional impact up under your flack jacket. Let's hope that his next writing/directing gig End of Watch delivers on the promise of his earlier work and we get our first unqualified masterpiece from Ayer. Check out the trailer here.
Rampart (2011) directed by Oren Moverman written by James Ellroy and Oren Moverman

Moverman's take on Ellroy's material is to scale back the overly familiar thriller aspects, cop talk and social commentary in favor of presenting a character piece and bringing us into conflict with our own wishes while we watch a bad man on his way down. Date Rape Dave Brown has all the classic Ellroy tropes - fucked-up, but earnestly invested-in family life (his ex-wives, the excellent pairing of Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon, whom he has one daughter apiece from and still occasionally sleeps with, are sisters - making his daughters half sisters as well as first cousins - and live together), unapologetically, outspoken un-PC jive that seems less a reflection of any honest convictions than it is a tool he employs to put everyone on the defensive when dealing with him - he's a button pusher, relentlessly digging under your skin so that you won't get under his.

And that's the thing - he's terribly vulnerable. Those most adept at handling his bullshit, (his ex-wives, his children, Ned Beatty's fatherly underworld contact and Robin Wright's romantically conflicted attorney) are capable of rendering him into an exposed nerve of sputtering fear, insecurity and self-loathing.

When a video camera catches Brown employing a little too much enthusiasm in the execution of his duties he finds that he's up for the role of departmental scape-goat in the wake of the titular scandal that has just rocked the district, but Brown isn't about to go down meekly. As each of the plates he's somehow kept spinning for years begin to wobble and he jumps about frantically attentive to each in crisis mode his behavior and decision making devolve and disintegrate quickly.

There's a fantastic sequence near the end of the film depicting Brown pushing his appetites till he's literally sick. He trolls through an underground sex club, shovels copious amounts of food into the gaping void of his face with two greasy hands and washes it down with whiskey for its short stay on the inside before vomiting in an alley and stumbling along the sidewalk amongst other denizens of the night. Couple Harrelson's aforementioned physical similarity to Ellroy, (not to mention Moverman - wtf?) with Ellroy's descriptions of his own unstoppable bingeing episodes and you've got... I dunno exactly what you've got. It's searing, personal and bullshit too, but Rampart would make a great second half to a double feature with one of the more plot-driven thriller pieces made from Ellroy's words. Ice Cube also gets a shout here for the best performance from a rapper in an Ellroy-inspired work.

Here're a few non-Ellroy related flicks that might as well have been.

Narc (2002) written and directed by Joe Carnahan.

How Ray Liotta didn't wind up with a best supporting actor nomination for his turn as Henry Oak, the most Ellroy-esque non-Ellroy cop ever on screen is beyond me. This is a towering performance without ever going over the top, he's got your attention without having to shout and hey, Jason Patric you gave your career best here too, but Liotta's presence fucking made this picture. He just kept layering the character till your loyalties were nice 'n mixed. Ever so slightly came undone in the sequence involving Busta Rhymes, but totally forgiven for the rest of the picture.

Brooklyn's Finest (2009) directed by Antoine Fuqua written by Michael C. Martin

Fuqua's Ayer-penned Training Day already got mentioned in this piece, but I think Brooklyn's Finest, though it takes the cop action out of L.A. is actually more Ellroy-esque. Consider the three cop structure - Don Cheadle's burning out undercover, Ethan Hawke's desperate family man willing to make a play for dirty street cash and Richard Gere's retiring coward don't share a lot of screen time, but converge with some damned tragic results. While the tone isn't as cynical as I tend to think of Ellroy's work as, it gets to that vulnerable, obscured heart on its sleeve and big romantic gestures Ellroy's characters are prone to.

The Shield (2002-2008) created by Shawn Ryan

Keep your Tony Soprano, your Al Swearengen, your Stringer Bell - there's never been a more complex and satisfactorily rendered television anti-hero, pro-antagonist than Michael Chiklis's Vic Mackey. For seven seasons he electrified, terrified and repulsed us. And we still wanted to see him win. The fifth season's fantastic showdown between Mackey and Forrest Whitaker's Kavanaugh was every bit as riveting and complex as Dark Blue and Street Kings never got. I'll be the first to grant that the first season is a little uneven. The characters and tone weren't all locked in yet, but holy hell, the show only improved from there, and the finale remains the single most emotionally satisfying - enraging, heart-breaking, thrilling, sick-making - capstones to a complex long-running show ever. The ambiguities of Rampart's conclusion are allowed to play out in all of their dramatic possibilities here.


Chris said...

We just watched Rampart last night and dug the hell out of it. Can't agree with you more.

Rod Norman said...

Just watched Rampart Thurs. night & really dug Dave "Date Rapes" character. Definetly character driven. They did a great job of letting us wallow in Daves world. The plot was pretty thin but Woody Harrelson made it a worthwhile viewing. Now I gotta catch up with all the other Ellroy adaptations that I haven't seen. Great job here Jed.

jedidiah ayres said...

I'm interested to have another viewing of several of these films. I find that my perspective changes often.

Ben said...

I didn't read Browne's Requiem, but I'd have to say Michael Rooker strikes me as a great choice for any character from a James Ellroy universe!

jedidiah ayres said...

Brown's Requiem, if I remember correctly, holds the distinction of being the only first person novel he's written... also the only PI novel (though they certainly turn up in other books as supporting cast). I really like the book.

Ray Garraty said...

Actually, I've read only one Ellroy's short story, but I'm already a fan (I also collect Ellroy's blurbs).

The story in Rampart is certainly Ellroy's, let the action does not take place in the 50's, but in 1999. Harrelson here is quite good(except for those moments when Dave starts to get angry). There is so much to enjoy: swearing lawyers, Ice Cube as a black detective, the legal system in works, Ned Beatty in the cap.
The problem for me is not the plot (Ellroy's done a good job), but in how Rampart is directed. Sundance is written in large letters all over the film. I have nothing against Sundance, on the contrary, I love a lot of movies made ​​specifically for this festival (hell, last years' Win Win was my favorite movie). But for a Sundance movie to become just a good movie, it needs a suitable story. Rampart requires a different approach, more animal style. Moverman uses a digital camera, strange camera angles, somewhere uses hand camera, music video editing, and indeed in the film there is so much light. The story itself requires sweat, dirt, filth, lonely hotel rooms. But the director meditates on the collapse of the family, peers into the children's faces, sympathizes with Dave.
I'd prefer another director for this script.
As for the other films, I'd seen The Black Dahlia but don't recall much about it. And I'd seen LA Confidential, for me it was almost awful despite good acting of most actors.
Thanks for the mentioning The Shield and Narc, I should watch it.

jedidiah ayres said...

Maybe I'm too inundated with Sundance style, but nothing about Moverman's approach bothered me...

LA Confidential - almost awful? Holy crap, thems some bold words - what have you brought to back them up?

Ray Garraty said...

You're certainly inundated, and I'm not: living across the ocean you can see that Americans can't see and otherwise.
I've seen LA Confidential a long time ago and remember only after I'd seen it I'd thought: Is that the thing that got Oscars and is called masterpiece? Cos the film didn't catch me at all. It was too soft, that's all I remember.