|Written by Noah Fleming|
|Friday, 03 October 2008|
You know the magician's stunt of pulling a tablecloth off a table while leaving the plates and cups undisturbed? Director Curtis Hanson and his co-screenwriter Brian Helgeland have managed the same feat in adapting James Ellroy's massive novel into a juicy, intricate and volcanically active thriller populated by riveting characters and terrific performances. The underlying mystery has been changed around, but they've preserved Ellroy's dense, layered style, finding telling details in even minor events and creating a sense of real unpredictability.
In early '50s L.A., everybody is making deals with everybody else. The cops are on the take, the fledgling tabloid industry is staging its own stories and when the town's top gangster is temporarily put away, there's no telling who's going to grab for his turf. When six people are shot to death in what looks like a coffeeshop robbery gone bad, ambitious young police lieutenant Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) solves the case quickly--only to discover that he's unwittingly participated in a massive cover-up.
The plot twists are plentiful, fast and sometimes literally furious, but the filmmakers are careful to keep us on the same wavelength with the protagonists, so that we neither jump ahead in anticipating what they may learn or lag behind in confusion. The dialogue crackles with muscular zest, sounding exactly right for the people and the period. The story is propelled as much by the individual characters' flaws and virtues as it is by schematics; genuine suspense is achieved as we wonder who will kill whom and for what reason.
The video quality on this Blu-ray disc is a bit of an enigma. The original DVD release was less than stellar. The Blu-ray release is presented on a BD-50 disc encoded at 1080p/VC-1. Understandably, some of the video material is purposely manipulated to look like the 1950s. However, the contrast to those images is exceptional, some of the time. For the most part, the film is exemplary Blu-ray material. Not demo material by any means, but still a worthy upgrade from the DVDs. The black levels are strong for much of the film, but that are inconsistent overall. The contrast also wavers, but is strong. Shadow delineation is incredible when it is on par. It has been a long time since I have seen gradient differences in shadows. The colors are appropriate, but they also waver over the course of the film. Digital noise reduction is apparent, and for the most part well done. However, there are issues with smudging. There appears to be some artifacting, but it is covered by the consistent layer of grain. The image details can be strong and at other times they can be soft. In the end, I am very pleased with the outcome of the video presentation of "L.A. Confidential." The restoration was not extreme, as with The Godfather collection's frame-by-frame restoration process. Still, the video is a solid improvement.
The audio quality is great. In many ways, it is better than today's biggest blockbuster films. Presented in Dolby TrueHD 5.1, "L.A. Confidential" has superb dynamics. Sound effects and dialogue are separated by a large decibel range. In fact, sometimes the dialogue dips a bit too low. However, I believe this is the work of the original mix and not the transfer. The LFE channel kicks into high gear, for the age of the film, during the gunfire scenes. The surrounds are better occupied with ambiences and discrete effects than the recent release of "Iron Man." Gunfire ricochet, music, and L.A ambience are all used to fill up the surrounds. They are well balanced and very effective.
The Blu-ray release contains two discs, with the movie and special features on the disc one. The bonus materials are largely filled with new features. Ported over form the original DVD release are the "Off the Record," "Photo Pitch," and "The L.A. of L.A. Confidential," Trailers, TV Spots, and a Music-Only Track. New to the Blu-ray release are several featurettes. "Whatever You Desire: Making 'L.A. Confidential'" contains all new interviews with cast and crew. "Sunlight and Shadow: The Visual Style of 'L.A. Confidential'" goes behind the scenes on bringing back the 1950s Los Angeles scene. "A True Ensemble: The Cast of 'L.A. Confidential'" contains interviews with the cast. "'L.A. Confidential:' From Book to Screen" talks about the challenges of making the film. "L.A. Confidential – 2000 TV Pilot" is a pitched TV version of the film. And finally, the Blu-ray contains a long awaited audio commentary track with just about everyone involved in the film. The performers on the commentary include: Andrew Sarris, James Ellroy, Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey, Guy Pearce, James Cromwell, Ruth Myers, David Strathairn, Kim Basinger, Brian Helegeland, Jeannine Oppewall, Dante Spinotti, and Danny Devito.
Lastly, there is a second disc that is a CD sampler. This is an audio CD that contains six tracks: Johnny Mercer and The Pied Pipers – "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive," Chet Baker – "Look For The Silver Lining," Betty Hutton – "Hit The Road To Dreamland," Kay Starr – "Wheel Of Fortune," Jackie Gleason – "But Not For Me," and Dean Martin – "Powder Your Face With Sunshine (Smile! Smile! Smile!)."
'L.A. Confidential' is worth viewing several times: once simply for the surprise value of the plot and another to see how ingeniously the filmmakers and actors structure their work. The action sequences stand up to repeated scrutiny, the production design is period-accurate and, as director Hanson points out, this is one instance where a '50s setting doesn't mean the whole movie forces us to squint through shadows--this is high-visibility film noir. It's also smart, cynical and a whole lot of fun.