Totally absorbed by Oren Moverman
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.
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.
(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.
(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
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
(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'
(2002) directed by Ron Shelton
, written by David Ayer
based on an original screenplay by James Ellroy.
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
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
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'
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.
(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
to do anything to make a picture better - that guy is
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
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.