Three neo-noirs open and a legendary blonde gets her day

Gena Rowlands makes her mark with the help of her son Nick Cassavetes (right).

Gena Rowlands makes her mark with the help of her son Nick Cassavetes (right).

Veteran actress Gena Rowlands knows that life is messy. She made her mark playing difficult, disturbed and complex women in films such as “A Woman Under the Influence,” “Faces” and “Gloria,” all made with her husband, the groundbreaking writer/director/actor John Cassavetes. (All three films garnered Oscar noms.)

But Rowlands, 84, recently dealt with a happy mess when she planted her hands and feet in wet cement at the TCL Chinese Theatre IMAX, formerly known as Grauman’s Chinese.

“I want to tell you one thing and I want you to listen,” she told the crowd at the ceremony last Friday. “If I get stuck in that cement, I expect all of you to help me out of it.”

Six Dance Lessons posterJoking aside, it’s hard to imagine Rowlands, with her gravelly voice, graceful posture and piercing blue eyes, needing help of any kind. To be sure, she’s delightful to watch in her latest vehicle, a comedy/drama called “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks.”

Directed by Arthur Allan Seidelman and written by Richard Alfieri (from his hit play of the same name), the movie introduces us to two lonely-hearts: Rowlands as a bored widow named Lily with time on her hands and no one to twirl her around the ballroom, and Cheyenne Jackson as Michael, a snippy gay dance teacher with attitude and arrogance to spare. It’s familiar territory: the oddballs with nothing in common who clash at first, then find true camaraderie and lasting affection.

Somehow, it’s a tad hard to buy that the stunningly gorgeous Michael is really that hard up for guys to date. (On stage, David Hyde Pierce played Michael, opposite Uta Hagen.) And there are more than a few manufactured moments. But this is a fluffy, crowd-pleasing, feel-good flick.

At a recent press day, Rowlands said she welcomed the chance to play the role, given the paucity of good parts for older women. “They’ve been done sort of an injustice,” she said. “Older people are the ones who have been places and seen things and have insight.”

Rowlands’ crisp and independent Lily likely will resonate with viewers. “She just wasn’t going to take it. She just wasn’t going to be miserable,” said Rowlands. “She was going to have some fun.”

And Rowlands said she voiced her opinion about Lily’s sexy dancing dress, making sure it looked as tasteful as possible. As she put it: “I have not made a reputation on my bosom!”

Inherent Vice posterThe much-anticipated “Inherent Vice” (director Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel of Los Angeles in 1970) stands as an exemplar of the neo-noir canon.

As pothead private eye Doc Sportello, Joaquin Phoenix is grubby, raunchy and amusing throughout. Doc agrees to help his ex-girlfriend (Katherine Waterston) after she confides to him that her current lover’s life could be in danger. Doc’s snooping sets off a gloriously Byzantine plot in the tradition of “The Big Sleep,” “Out of the Past,” “D.O.A,” “Pulp Fiction” and “The Big Lebowski.”

Doc encounters an assortment of mostly corrupt malcontents, including Josh Brolin as a brutish cop, Owen Wilson as an airheaded surf musician, Jena Malone as his wry wife, Reese Witherspoon as a cynical district attorney not averse to puffing a joint, Benicio Del Toro as Doc’s hip lawyer, and Martin Short as an evil dentist.

Anderson provides assured direction as well as a script that is both slick and at times touching. “Inherent Vice” is a head-banging cinematic ride. It’s hard, however, to escape the feeling that this trippy, 148-minute excursion to hippiedom could be a little more entertaining, a little funnier than it is. Anderson puts his top-tier cast in comic situations and there are laughs, to be sure, just not quite enough to energize the material as a whole.

Tales of the Grim Sleeper posterIn “Tales of the Grim Sleeper,” documentarian Nick Broomfield tells a riveting crime story of haunting sadness and infuriating injustice. But given that the crimes – the murders of at least 10 women, some of whom were prostitutes – took place in South Central Los Angeles it’s hardly surprising, according to London-born Broomfield, who describes Los Angeles as operating under apartheid.

Certainly, it is staggering to consider that the murders took place over a period of 22 years with apparently little effort by police to follow clues, connect the cases or alert the community to the potential danger. LA Weekly reporter Christine Pelisek broke the story in 2007. In 2010, a mechanic named Lonnie Franklin, now 62, was arrested and is awaiting trial.

The LAPD would not participate in Broomfield’s film so arguably there may be gaps or questions about the events. But one thing’s for sure: Watching Broomfield’s recounting of the facts will make your blood boil.

The Captive posterFrom its opening scene, “The Captive,” loosely based on an actual case in Ontario, Canada, declares itself an unconventional thriller. That’s not surprising given that it’s directed and co-written by unconventional filmmaker Atom Egoyan (“Where the Truth Lies,” “The Sweet Hereafter”).

The titular captive is a girl named Cass (Alexia Fast) who is abducted and held prisoner for close to a decade by an uber-creepy rich guy (Kevin Durand). Her parents, Mireille Enos and Ryan Reynolds, struggle to maintain hope that Cass is still alive; meanwhile their marriage is in tatters. Rosario Dawson and Scott Speedman are the cops trying to crack the case.

Some elements of “The Captive” are praiseworthy: the stark cinematography full of isolated, foreboding winterscapes; the weird, unnerving atmosphere; the raw performances. But the story feels ill conceived and randomly plotted, leading to a particularly hackneyed and hard-to-buy turn for Dawson’s tough, streetwise character. Unfortunately, the non-linear narrative doesn’t so much unfold as flop around, sometimes annoyingly, serving to create tedium more than tension.

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3-D ‘Sin City: A Dame to Kill For’ entertains, despite a so-so story and one-dimensional characters

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For/2014/Miramax Films/102 min.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For,” with its bold visuals based on Frank Miller’s graphic novels, is a slick 3-D homage to black-and-white cinematography. The snazzy images of Miller’s film (he wrote and co-directed with Robert Rodriguez) are its chief virtue.

Eva Green is superb as the Dame.

Eva Green is superb as the Dame.

In this follow-up to 2005’s “Sin City” (which Miller and Rodriguez directed with Quentin Tarantino), viewers are plunged into a perilous urban universe. Created with truly spectacular special effects and animation, it’s a sleazy, dazzling, self-contained world of inky black, shocks of bright white, stunning shades of gray and pops of color.

Unfortunately, Miller and Rodriguez devote much less effort to the story – an episodic tale of temptation, lust, murder, betrayal, revenge and vigilante justice. The stellar cast – including Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba, Josh Brolin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Rosario Dawson, Bruce Willis and Eva Green as the title’s Dame, nail their parts but leave you wanting more. Since only a few of the characters move from one story to the next, there aren’t enough opportunities for these great actors to spark some chemistry and play off one another.

Does the fact that the story is mined from graphic novels mean we shouldn’t expect any depth, nuance or surprise? The narratives are underdeveloped and unsatisfying to a point that suggests laziness. (Why don’t we forget about that dialogue and just add another shot of Eva’s luscious body? Or have Jessica gyrate some more. Who’s gonna complain, right?)

Presumably, the filmmakers made an effort to portray a passel of kick-ass femmes fatales, but it felt like mere window dressing. Why, for example, does Jessica Alba’s character need to mutilate herself before going into battle? In the end, these women have very little power.

This Dame is fast, fierce and entertaining, but she’s no femme fatale in my book.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” opens today.

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Film noir feast this weekend: ‘Sin City,’ Exile Noir and ‘Pickup’

“Double Indemnity” and “Pitfall” will open UCLA’s Exile Noir series.

“Double Indemnity” and “Pitfall” will open UCLA’s Exile Noir series.

There are several delectable film noir offerings this weekend in Los Angeles. First, a sequel worth seeing! That would be “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” by directors Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez. It’s a follow-up to 2005’s “Sin City.” (Miller adapted both scripts from his graphic novels.)

Sin City 2“Sin City 2” stars Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba, Josh Brolin and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The movie opens Friday.

Following closely behind its Hollywood Exiles in Europe series, UCLA is hosting Exile Noir, a lineup that explores the major contribution to film noir by German-speaking émigrés in Hollywood, all of whom were schooled in German expressionist cinema. Exiled from Nazi Germany, Jewish writers and directors brought a dark vision to their work, informed by staggering loss, pain, fear and betrayal.

Their arrival in Los Angeles permanently altered the city’s creative landscape. As Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the UCLA Film & Television Archive, recently told Susan King of the LA Times: “[Their arrival] changed not just the film industry and the kind of films that were being made, it changed the intellectual life. You have people who are not in the film industry but came here because of the weather and perceived opportunities, like [composer] Arnold Schoenberg and [author] Thomas Mann. They changed the intellectual character of Southern California.”

Pitfall poster 214The program, which runs through Sept. 28, kicks off with an impressive double bill: the prototype of the genre, “Double Indemnity” (1944, Billy Wilder) and “Pitfall” (1948, André De Toth), starring Dick Powell, Lizabeth Scott and Jane Wyatt. In honor of “Double Indemnity” turning 70 this year, on Valentine’s Day, we compiled a list of 14 reasons we love this flick.

This series is presented in anticipation of the Skirball Cultural Center exhibit, Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950, running Oct. 23–March 1, 2015. More on that in the next few weeks.

Also, as I mentioned earlier this week, the Egyptian Theatre is showing Sam Fuller’s film noir masterpiece “Pickup on South Street” and “White Dog.” His daughter Samantha Fuller will introduce the movies.

There’s no doubt: Life is good for noiristas in Los Angeles!

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‘Gangster Squad’ goes for gorgeous gloss over true grit

Gangster Squad/2013/Warner Bros./113 min.

The much-hyped new neo-noir “Gangster Squad,” set in 1949 Los Angeles, falls prey to the same stereotypical failing that marks some Angelinos, then and now: It’s a wannabe. On the plus side, the movie is glossy looking and elegantly styled (many famous locations, from Slapsy Maxie’s to Clifton’s Cafeteria, are stunningly presented) with a star-studded cast.

Directed by Ruben Fleischer, there’s action aplenty, though it never feels like there’s much at stake. And its superficial, often cartoonish, virtues are undercut by a weak script, uneven performances and tepid emotion.

That’s too bad, given the long-standing allure of vintage LA and the fascinating source material for the film: Paul Lieberman’s crime saga, “Gangster Squad: Covert Cops, the Mob, and the Battle for Los Angeles,” which was based on the work of a secret LAPD unit that aimed to guard the city against gangsters. (The book began as a 2008 LA Times series.)

Their primary target: the ruthless and immensely powerful mob leader Mickey Cohen, portrayed in the film by Sean Penn. Josh Brolin plays ambitious good cop Sgt. John O’Mara (married and devoted to his wife); Ryan Gosling turns in another spare, cool performance as the wayward Sgt. Jerry Wooters who tangles with Cohen’s supposed mistress (Emma Stone). A growling, leonine Nick Nolte as police chief William H. Parker must muddle through lines like this one, addressed to O’Mara: “Los Angeles is a damsel in distress. And I need you to save her.”

Penn’s Cohen has similar clunkers. He tells us: “Back east, I was a gangster, out here I’m God.”

The strong cast does what it can, with Brolin, Gosling and Stone making the best of what they are given. But, thanks to Will Beall’s cliche-ridden script, Nolte starts to get mannered and Penn gives us a 2-D Cohen, unrelentingly brutal and ever-menacing. As talented as Penn is, he doesn’t seem to connect with this character and physically he’s an odd choice to play a brawny baby-faced former boxer. In 1949, Cohen was 36; Penn is 52. And if you know much of Cohen’s backstory (he avoided sex because of his OCD disorder), it’s hard to buy into the love-triangle element of this story, which is only very loosely based on fact.

“L.A. Confidential” this is not. But if you fancy gorging on some glitzy eye candy, this should do nicely.

“Gangster Squad” opens today nationwide. You can read author Tere Tereba’s piece Beyond the Gangster Squad: the Real Mickey Cohen here. Tere’s book on Cohen was selected  by KCET as one of the best books of 2012. 

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