Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Nice Guys (and some Short Takes comments)

                                                       City of Night

                                                  Review by Ken Burke

Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews.  Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up.  Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
                                            The Nice Guys (Shane Black)
In 1977 L.A. one porn star dies in a crash, another goes missing, an inept detective and a no-nonsense strong-arm guy begin as antagonists then join forces to solve the mysteries of the mysterious ladies only to find there are others also looking for the disappeared woman, air pollution plays into this plot, and there are lots of laughs to accompany the violence.
What Happens: On what begins as an otherwise-innocent-night in 1977 Los Angeles (which we see, in many a shot here and throughout the movie, as a night scene of innumerable-lights spread out across this mountain-and-ocean-rimmed-basin), a pubescent-boy’s horny-tranquility is shattered when a car comes crashing though his home, landing in the canyon beyond with the blood-stained-body of famous-porn-star Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio) dead at the wheel.  Next, we meet fierce-freelance-enforcer Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), a tough Irishman from the Bronx (with self-betterment-aspirations, teaching himself a new word every day) who makes a living rectifying personal offenses such as adult men coming on (or worse) to teenage girls.  To complete our introductions to what follows throughout this movie, we find miserably-inept-former-cop-now-private-detective Holland March (Ryan Gosling) waking up, fully clothed, in a bathtub full of water, an indication that his persistent drinking (and clumsiness) leads to trouble, despite trying to make enough of a living to support himself and his frequently-skeptical-13-year-old-daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice), in their nice rental home up in the hills.  From here, things just get increasingly more complicated, beginning with March getting a case from Misty’s aunt, Mrs. Glenn (Lois Smith), to find her niece’s missing friend, Amelia Kuttner (Margaret Qualley), in hopes of understanding Misty’s situation, given that the aunt insists she drove by her niece’s home after the car crash, saw her through the living-room-window.  However, Amelia doesn’t want to be found (I didn’t even catch who she is when she 1st appears) so she hires Healy to scare March away, which he attempts to do by smashing up his home (with Holland’s body as the main “weapon” against his own furnishings), followed by breaking his arm as a final reminder.  

 However, turnabout’s fair play as Healy’s also attacked that night at his little apartment by 2 thugs (known to us later only as Older Guy [David Keith] and Blue Face [Beau Knapp]—the latter because he refused to heed Healy’s warning not to open a paint-rigged-briefcase) determined to learn what he knows about Amelia.  Healy proves tough enough to chase these goons away but decides he’d better team up with reluctant-victim-March in order to find Amelia before her presumed-killers do.

 What our emerging-cooperative-protagonists find (with encouragement from Holly, more involved than they’ve bargained for at times) is that Amelia started an anti-smog-protest-group (they make quite a notable-display of themselves in downtown L.A.) who reveal that Amelia worked with a porn-industry-filmmaker/ boyfriend Dean to shoot a damning-air-pollution-awareness-short-movie (called How Do You Like My Car, Big Boy? [just think about the porn-implications of that for a minute]) but he died when his house burned down (supposedly from flammable-film-stock, although it’s unlikely he’d have been working with such as late as 1977 as it was generally phased-out a couple of decades earlier due to its danger) with Amelia’s movie also up in flames (this is a touchy subject for Holland because he lost his sense of smell through a beating some time ago so that he couldn’t detect a gas leak in his former home; the ensuing fire there either caused the death of his wife or her angry divorce from him [sorry, didn’t catch the specifics]).  Next, Healy and March go to a lavish party hosted by porn producer Sid Shattack because of his connection to both Misty and Amelia (Holly sneaks in as well in their car trunk; Holland tries to send her home in a cab but she comes back anyway).  March gets roaringly drunk (which doesn’t help when Healy’s earlier assailants show up looking for Amelia), falls over a balcony, rolls down the hill, stumbles upon Shattack’s dead body which he and Healy throw over a fence (onto someone else’s dinner-party-table), while Holly escapes into the woods with suddenly-appearing-Amelia.  In the midst of all of this chaos (much of it done for laughs), Blue Face is run over by a van, then found by Healy to whom he reveals that a more-deadly-hitman, John Boy (Matt Bomer), will soon be in on this action, after which Healy quietly strangles him but it still arouses further suspicions in Holly about Dad’s new partner (Amelia slipped away during all this).  March and Healy are then brought over to talk with U.S. Department of Justice high-honcho Judith Kuttner (Kim Basinger) who hires our guys to find Amelia, her daughter, whom she says she believes is delusional but is in danger from the Las Vegas porn mob as they seek to move into the L.A. market.

 Based on an ambiguous note (with Holland’s firm conviction that he’s finally getting clarity on this complex case), March and Healy head to the Burbank Airport hotel to find Amelia but instead encounter various hitmen being killed as our heroes were trying to access the penthouse so they have to change course, quickly attempting to drive away only to have Amelia drop onto the roof of their car.  They speed her out of danger, then listen to her story about how she learned the Detroit Big Three automakers are trying to kill her because her movie contains incriminating evidence against their attempts to circumvent new laws (1975, actual) requiring catalytic converters in cars by rigging dysfunctional machines that would maintain profits while not actually curtailing air pollution (to my knowledge, this is fictional but mirrors actual illegal actions in recent years by Volkswagen to modify such devices in their diesel engines to engage only during emissions tests so that pollutants wouldn’t be detected in normal driving conditions but a more-cost-efficient-converter with its increased mileage could be promoted for sales advantages)—of course, to get the movie seen she embedded this damning info into a sex story so she sees herself as a public crusader rather than as the insignificant-porno-actress she’s constantly assumed to be.  She also says that Mom’s in on the hit, in league with the crooked-auto-manufacturers to let them get away with their scheme, so Amelia fears everyone on her trail.  Hoping there’s a middle explanation resolving the conflicting stories, March and Healy meet with Kuttner’s assistant, Tally (Yaya DaCosta), to take $100,000 to John Boy in order to call off the hit on Amelia (with the understanding that the incriminating movie’s been destroyed), but on the way to the delivery March nods off, crashing the car into a barrier so that the valise flies open with the “money” being just magazine paper, a ruse to get our protagonists away from March’s home so that John Boy can kill the supposedly-hidden-Amelia.  They rush back to find that Holly’s held him off with Dad’s pistol but he breaks out a machine gun that does a lot of damage to the house although Amelia escapes once again; seemingly, John Boy decides to leave the scene but it’s only to trick Amelia further down the road, desperately seeking a ride, only to finally be killed by this assassin.

 Determined not to have all of these deaths be in vain, Healy and March return to Mrs. Glenn to try to understand how she could have seen Misty alive after her sure demise.  What they find is a projector in the niece’s living room so they surmise that what the aunt saw was Amelia watching another copy of her film (Misty was in it also); they then track down anti-smog-group-member/projectionist-Chet (Jack Kilmer) to find that he has the 2nd copy and plans to show it during the upcoming huge Pacific Coast Car Show.  Before long, though, Chet’s dead in a dumpster; Tally has a gun on March, Healy, and Holly; the movie’s nowhere to be found even as Holly accidently causes Tally to be knocked unconscious.  After that, there’s another crazy melee that ends with Holland and Older Guy falling off a balcony where the former lands in a pool while the latter splats to a bloody death.  Healy’s about to also kill John Boy but relents in deference to Holly’s concerns about his violent tactics, allowing this gruesome hitman to be arrested instead.  
As it turns out, Amelia’s movie has been spliced into the middle of the Car Show promo flick so it’s seen by hundreds but the Big Three execs go free due to lack of collusion-evidence although Tally and Kuttner are taking a fall for their actions (the latter gives a grim, impassioned speech to March and Healy about how Detroit must survive for America’s benefit, a bit of a satirical jab at how these auto guys came to be bailed out by the U.S. government in the 2007-2009 Great Recession).  When all the dust has settled, March and Healy decide to form a private-eye-agency, The Nice Guys.

So What? While I don’t think that co-screenwriter (with Anthony Bagarozzi)/ director Black intended to rip off any other (of the many previous) buddy-movie-successes with The Nice Guys, the release-timing of this movie certainly allows an audience-attraction-connection with the recent comic work of Kevin Hart (providing the laughs—and massive audience cash despite damning reviews—when paired with the characters of fuming-cop/future-brother-in-law-Ice Cube in Ride Along [1] and …2 [Tim Story; 2014, 2016] and smug-CIA-agent-Dwayne Johnson in the upcoming Central Intelligence [Rawson Marshall Thurber]), although mixed with a bit more sinister L.A.-film noir-vibe from such older-fare as The Big Sleep (1946)—which The Nice Guys has been compared to in terms of convoluted-plot (even director Howard Hawks admitted he couldn’t follow what was happening in his own film [but, then again, neither did original novelist Raymond Chandler], which just goes to show that coherence isn’t necessarily the hallmark of a masterpiece as long as other fascinating-presentational-elements [such as rising-steam between leads Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall] take up the slack)—and L.A. Confidential (Curtiss Hanson, 1997)—which offers the parallel-aspects of devious activities within a segment of the far-flung-entertainment-industry, insidious corruption within the ranks of assumed-guardians of the law, and (certainly not least) the presence of Crowe and Basinger in crucial roles (Crowe’s even somewhat resembles his current one); but now that we’ve considered the relevance of comparisons to these other L.A.-set-cinematic-crime-stories, we shouldn’t forget Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974) where, like in The Nice Guys, corruption among social leaders is discovered, a sometimes-bungling-detective finally confirms the awful truth of his mystery, and some awareness of the shady dealings of the rich and powerful are brought to light.

 However, the Detroit automakers remain untouched at the end of our current story, just as horrid Noah Cross’ crimes were ignored in Chinatown (an uncontested example of 5-star-cinema, as far as I’m concerned, just as are The Big Sleep and L.A. Confidential, any of which provides a textbook-example of how a truly-superior-film with every aspect working well on its behalf [even a murky plot where all of the dots don’t ultimately connect but which properly adds to the overall aura of dangerous intrigue, as with Hawks’ legacy-enhancing-triumph] outshines the easily-entertaining-immediacy-but-ultimately-evaporative-impact of something pleasant-but-not-fully-bound-for-glory as what we witness in The Nice Guys), so no rosy ending is offered in either one, just an honest acknowledgement of how the exposure of truth doesn't always bring justice in our complex society.

 If successful enough, this movie might conjure up a sequel, which would be well-appreciated if it can retain the goofy charm of this initial installment; after all, Black was able to launch another successful-oddball-crimestoppers-pairing with the Lethal Weapon franchise (by writing the original 1987 movie [directed by Richard Donner]) so he may have the makings here of another hit series, as his 3 primary players (Crowe, Gosling, Rice) display excellent chemistry, the various social excesses of the 1970s remain ripe for further cinematic plucking (plus the easy options of implying their connotations to contemporary society), and the overall script quality here—besides the rather flat wrap-up once all of the antagonists are captured or dead—is quite an improvement over the sort of silliness that Kevin Hart’s handlers keep steering him into.  The Nice Guys has the misfortune to be competing with the ongoing juggernaut that is Captain America: Civil War (a bit more about that further below), the mindless-repetition-but-attractive-stupidity that is Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising (Nick Stoller; Rotten Tomatoes 62% positive reviews, Metacritic 58% average score), and the built-in-franchise (and kiddie)-appeal of The Angry Birds Movie (Clay Kaytis, Fergal Reilly; Rotten Tomatoes 42%, 43%) so that its opening-weekend-tally barely topped $11.2 million (with those others making considerably more, even with Neighbors 2 … similarly-limited by an R-rating) but critical response is strong (Rotten Tomatoes 90%, Metacritic 70%; more details in the links far below) so maybe we haven’t seen the last of The Nice Guys.

Bottom Line Final Comments: Black’s done a fine job here of capturing L.A. as I saw it in 1975 (along with the several times since, after moving to CA in 1984) from the ugly clothes that we were so eager to wear then (with an even more “dressed-down”-Texas-version on display in the 1976-set-Dazed and Confused [Richard Linklater, 1993; some comments on this one in our last posting]) to the ugly smog that usually covered the city during that era (fortunately, both of these elements have recently been improved, although Southern California air quality’s still more odious than its fashions), just as the script captures the quirky personalities of the 2 male leads (with early voice-over-narration from each of them that helps us understand their conflicting personalities) so that we have plenty to laugh at here (beginning with Holland’s early scene as he willingly takes a case from a confused, elderly woman whose husband’s been missing “ever since the funeral,” even as he eyes the man’s urn on the mantelpiece) although the humor competes with danger as the overall situation becomes more ominous, then potentially-deadly for these well-meaning-but-often-outmaneuvered-guys, especially given Healy’s readiness to kill anyone he deems necessary for such action and the sudden deaths that keep occurring along the way, predominantly Amelia’s.  We’re often caught off-guard by character traits that aren’t too appealing by either protagonist (Healy’s easy-attitude toward physical violence, even against someone he barely knows as with his initial confrontation with March; March’s unrepentant alcoholism even to the point of congratulating Healy at the end of the story for taking up drinking again) or by absurdly-humorous lines of dialogue that you wouldn’t expect in the midst of such ongoing-homicidal-encounters, but it all fits well into the aura of Los Angeles as a kooky-yet-dangerous-place (illustrated well for me and my wife, Nina, as we relaxed comfortably on a vacation to the funky-by-the-ocean-Sea Sprite Motel [Hermosa Beach, just west of L.A. proper] on the night of June 12, 1994 while close by in Brentwood Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were being murdered by … someone … who possibly left an ill-fitting-glove at the scene, a shocking interlude to our pleasant getaway when we heard the news the next day).

 In attempting to bring all of the above commentary into a plausibly-chosen-Musical Metaphor for what we’re presented with in The Nice Guys, I’ve decided to go with the 1st piece of music we get in this oddball-movie (played effectively during the opening credits), some of the instrumental parts of The Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” (from their 1972 All Directions album) at com/watch?v=Hcqs 5z0yEl4 (the full 12:02 version, but if you’d like to see them perform it live, even though only in a 3:52 rendition without all of that instrumental-enhancement, here you go) because Holland March is certainly a less-than-ideal-father (although he never did any “store front preachin’” or “Dealin' in debt, and stealin' in the name of the Lord,” but even if we only see Holland “chasin' women” at the porn party he certainly “Spent most of his time […] drinkin'” so this song does reference—in a manner that implies a lot of what we see about our less-than-sterling-heroes—the shortcomings of March and Healy, but at least neither of them died leaving Holly “alone (lone, lone, lone, alone)”).  Yet, given all else that we encounter in this fascinating—yet uneven at times, especially toward the middle and the very end—tale, I think you deserve another appropriate Metaphor so I’ll turn to the Doors’ “L.A. Woman” (from the 1971 album of the same name, released in April of that year 3 months before Jim Morrison’s untimely-death) at (supposedly the official music video for this song; if so, the 4x3 visual format of those earlier years has been stretched into our contemporary widescreen format; whatever, the imagery’s very evocative of the lyrics) in recognition of both Holly, the “lucky little lady in the city of light,” along with the combination of Misty, Amelia, and her mother, Judith, the “lost angel[s] of the “city of night,” all essential characters for what makes The Nice Guys tick as well as it does, “chang[ing] the mood from glad to sadness” at times.

 (Speaking of sadness, I’m also drawn to this 2nd song because while its lyrics about “mister mojo risin’” are directly about the horny singer’s sexual desires in this town he just got into “about an hour ago,” they also speak in a non-sexual-manner to the need for my previously-invincible-Golden State Warriors basketball team to somehow recover their former-mojo as they face the dishonor of being crushed in the 2016 NBA Western Conference finals by the powerful Oklahoma City Thunder [admittedly, due their own championship having yet to attain one since 1979 as the Seattle SuperSonics], with our local guys—league champs last year—down 3 games to 1 as I write this, elimination hanging by a shoelace when these teams match up again on the night of May 26, 2016; if they can muster their former magic then, followed by another couple of wins, they’ll be “risin’, risin’” but if not then a whole lot of us here in the San Francisco Bay area will just be lost “Into [our] blue-blue blues,” left with the memories of all the records the wondrous Warriors set before being rolled by the Thunder—and as for my long-time-support for the Oakland Athletics baseball team, it’s still there but they’re not much to brag about at this point, although with a dozen of their projected starters on the disabled list I doubt there’ll be much hope for success this season; this is turning out to be far-too-normal [that is, dismal] for our hometown East Bay teams short of some unanticipated miracles as time creeps on into the near future.)
Short Takes
 “Hey, hey, LBJ, How many kids did you …”  Naw, I’m not going to finish that derogatory rhyme about how even in Texas there were many who opposed the 1st Texan-President’s (Dwight D. Eisenhower was born there but moved away to Kansas at age 2) useless-insistence on escalation of the Vietnam War (a losing proposition from the start as an attempt to prevent the fall of the South Vietnamese government to their fierce-communist-North-counterparts—as we all found out when President Richard Nixon’s 1973 “peace with honor” declaration came crashing down with the fall of Saigon in 1975 [explored well in Last Days in Vietnam {Rory Kennedy, 2014; with not truly a review but some comments at the end of our October 30, 2014 posting}]), even though I marched in the streets in Austin, TX in the late 1960s chanting it.  But I’ll refrain now in respect for a complicated man (angry bully, some would say) who undercut his otherwise-substantial-legacy, with great accomplishments in the field of civil rights for African-Americans paving the way for others who didn’t happen to be White, male, or straight to also finally start getting a larger measure of acceptance in recent years (although LBJ’s legislation may not seem like enough today, especially with our current Supreme Court having gutted the enforcement-aspects of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, but given the entrenched institutional racism and outright White Supremacist attitudes of many politicians and residents of the South that I grew up with, the 1964 Civil Rights Act was more of a Herculean-accomplishment than younger critics may be able to give it credit for), by intensifying American involvement in Asian warfare (which we’re stuck in again due to the debacles of President G.W. Bush and his hawkish military advisors).  But, back in 1964-’65, President Lyndon B. Johnson (following the tragic assassination of John F. Kennedy) proved to be a surprisingly-remarkable-advocate of legal equality (the socialization aspect of that still proves hard to come by), a passion well-explored in HBO’s All the Way (as in the 1964 campaign chant, “All the way with LBJ”), Brian Cranston once again showing his potential as an Emmy-winner (following his 4-time-success with Breaking Bad; Melissa Leo may also have a shot as Best Supporting Actress for her role of a First Lady with infinite tolerance, Lady Bird Johnson).

 I’m not reviewing All the Way as such, rather I'm just encouraging you to try to locate further showings of it if you can on HBO, although if you want actual reviews of it here are ones from Mary McNamara in the Los Angeles Times and Neil Genzlinger in the New York Times, plus an account of how fiction interacts with history in this made-for-TV-movie directed by Jay Roach, written by Robert Schenkkan (based on his Tony-award-winning Best Play, also starring Tony-winner-Cranston), with other key roles of Senator Richard Russell Jr. played by Frank Langella, Martin Luther King Jr. by Anthony Mackie (if you didn’t see enough of him in Captain America: Civil War [again, more on that below]), Senator Hubert Humphrey by Bradley Whitford, and the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover by Stephen Root.  LBJ may seem to be a foul-mouthed, devious, politician-more-than-reformer, but I find Cranston’s portrayal to be as true and strikingly-effective to what I knew of him as Daniel Day-Lewis showed another important (equally-manipulative when events demanded it) President in Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, 2012; review in our December 28, 2012 posting).

 “It’s a Rich World After All.”  In case you need any further proof that my ratings have essentially no impact on box-office-success, I’ll note that 
my 3 stars for Captain America: Civil War (Anthony and Joe Russo; review in our May 13, 2016 posting) don’t match up much with the financial-reality that this movie has now crossed the $1 billion mark worldwide as of last week ($314 million in the U.S.-Canada-market, $677 from the rest of the globe), making it the 4th release from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (a Disney property) to earn over $1 billion worldwide (with all 13 of those MCU’s tallying over $10 billion total in their global take—and don’t forget that Disney now owns the Star Wars franchise so that the recently-released … The Force Awakens [J.J. Abrams, 2015; much-more-supportive-review in our December 31, 2015 posting] is #3 on that worldwide-All Time-list, so that Disney has 10 of the 25 in the billion + range [but you’re still gonna pay through the nose for a Pineapple Dole Whip at the Enchanted Tiki Room in Adventureland so start saving now before you pack the kids into the car for a summer vacation trip]).  Finally, as for this starkly-exposed “Pirates of the Caribbean” photo of me and Nina, it’s an accessory opportunity with the Berkeley (CA) Repertory Theatre’s current production of Treasure Island (adapted and directed by Mary Zimmerman, but I won’t review that either—as that's the proper domain of my theatre-critic-Two Guys-so-far-silent partner, Pat Craig—just give a big encouragement for anyone in my Northern CA-home-base-area to see this great show if you can), which I attended last weekend with my partner-in-swag (and wonderful wife of almost 26 years), so I’m posting it here in case some Disney talent scouts see it, then recruit us to co-star with Johnny Depp in … Dead Men Tell No Tales (Joachim Rønning, Espen Sandberg; scheduled for 2017), maybe set to join … Dead Man’s Chest and … On Stranger Tides on that worldwide $1 billion + list.
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Here’s more information about The Nice Guys: (this is the Red Band trailer that contains the same R-rated language and imagery as the movie; if you’d like something a little more sanitized here’s one at, which makes for an interesting comparison as to what’s considered socially acceptable these days) (27:41 interview with producer Joel Silver, director/co-screenwriter Shane Black, and actors Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Matt Bomer)

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If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at  Thanks.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.

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