Monday, March 28, 2016

Noir Time! #4: Too Late (2016) {Film Review}

Wow. I just saw a movie that I thought I would never see anytime soon. A movie that perfectly captured my love of this movement called Film Noir, and put a completely modern spin onto it. I didn't know whether I wanted to make this post a Noir Time retrospective, where I would point out what it did genuinely that would be considered noir-isms, or to make it a strict film review where I talked about its other technical aspects and didn't focus solely on its noir traits. So I've decided to do both. And let me say this for the record: Too Late is the best movie that's come out this year, and maybe even last year as well. I urge everyone to go see it in theaters because that's truly how it was intended to be seen. And I'm not just saying that like a purist stuck in the past, resisting the evolution of technology and cinema. I mean it was literally filmed and presented entirely in 35mm film print.

A little history. For the first 100 years of cinema, 35 mm print was the standard for filming and presenting movies. Theaters all around the country would carry projectors that could accommodate to the format, and that was just the norm for up until around 25-30 years ago. Digital cameras became available, and movies were beginning to be shot digitally. Theatres would dispose of all their projectors, and now almost every movie made now a days is shot completely digitally. Only a few theatres in the country now carry even a single film projector. With digital format, the quality can be sharpened and sharpened from 1080p all the way now to 4k digital. Netflix will not acquire an original movie unless it's shot in 4k HD to give you an idea of where things stand today. With 35mm print, there was never a way to update or sharpen the image quality. What you filmed and developed is what you got, so colors could be more vibrant, and images could feel more tangible. Now there is the downside of the expenses of film vs digital, the environmental costs, the wear and tear they can be subjected to, and the hassle it is to film with it and even presenting it in theatres (ie changing film reels). But with everything shifting towards the internet, you would think it would be in big theatre chains' best interest to present something consumers can't see at home. We could very well have a film renaissance, at least that's what first assistant director of the movie Matt Miller believes. But I digress. My point was to emphasize the uphill battle first time writer and director Dennis Hauck had with making this film. Filmmakers have shot and presented modern movies before in film (Quentin Tarantino's the Hateful Eight, and Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master) but they were only for higher profile directors whose reputation outweighed the budget and inefficient costs of shooting in film, and even those movies were presented in 70mm, a larger film print. This movie was filmed in 35 mm and in Techniscope with a first time director and a significantly smaller budget and release.  I had the chance to hear him speak about the movie, along with other members of the crew, and what the creative processes was behind making this movie. Let me give a small plot summary before I dive any deeper.

We follow troubled private detective Mel Sampson (played by the very selective John Hawkes) as we view the tangled relationship between him and the missing woman he's hired to find (thanks IMDB). It was filmed in five separate acts, each of which is filmed in one TRUE single take (looking at you Birdman). If you are a lover of film, interested in film noir, or curious about film noir but are not into older movies this film is for you. Now if anything I've said or written about up until this point interests you at all, stop reading and go see this movie immediately. There's no real way I can talk about this movie, especially at the length and depth I want to talk about, without spoiling it. And it's not like spoiling the plot ruins the movie. There isn't a Sixth Sense twist in it, but I don't want to rob anyone of seeing this movie for the first time unfold in 35mm. Chances are there will be one theatre in your area showing it, and it must be seen in 35mm in order to be fully appreciated. It's not a gimmick, it's seriously part of the art, I promise you wont regret it. When you see it come back and read the rest of this.

Okay where to even begin. Like I said this movie contains five separate nonlinear acts filmed in one single tracking shot. Very much inspired by Alfred Hitchcock's Rope, which was filmed as a "single take" film. But in fact that movie (more obviously today) had "cheat" cuts. I mean, I bet if Mr. Hitchcock had it his way, he'd have filmed the whole movie in a true single take. But the unfortunate reality is that standard film cameras can only carry about 11 minutes worth of film before having to be changed. This movie was filmed in Techniscope, which means there was double the film. Meaning that each take was 22 minutes long, and truly did not have any cheats or edits (and by edits I mean spliced takes; there are some nifty little on screen edits but not at the cost of altering any takes). That's extremely impressive when considered that Birdman had around 273 cheated edits to hide altered takes. Even more impressive considering the camera rig weighed around 90 pounds to cary, and (for the most part) remains steady throughout the entire film. Now there is the occasional camera wobble, and half paused line from an actor that can be noticed but for the most part everything is spot on. And it's crazy because the dialogue of a Noir is considered pulp, which is fast, witty and requires characters to bounce lines off of one another. It's where Tarantino get's his inspiration from, and I consider him the best writer of dialogue ever in film. To have that not only accomplished, but perfected here is nothing short of an amazing feat. The dialogue is so out of a 1940's noir, a Raymond Chandler novel, a pulp cereal, yet none of it feels dated or out of place. It's actually some of the more natural dialogue in any film, and the modern interpretation on it is fantastic.

Here's where I'm going to get a little more Noir specific. This movie pays homage to the world that it came from while also setting a new standard for the movement of Noir. Seeing Dorothy die in the first act is just a reminder to us that Noir is always about the journey and seldom about the destination. It's emphasized even harder by the fact that each act is a single take, and we must patiently follow along in real time and see how things unfold. Right away we know that Mel has a relationship with Dorthy, we know she's in trouble and they've been troubled before, and we know she dies. We want to see how we got to this point. I think the first act is my favorite because it has the tough job of establishing the viewers in the story, as well as film itself. We get some of the more scenic and colorful shots of Los Angeles, as well as the more technically impressive camera acts (zooming all the way into Mel as he answers the phone from a far {yes that did happen real time}, and the flying camera as Dorothy gets chocked to death {via Technocrane}). I have yet to talk about a Neo Noir (Noir film made after 1958's Touch of Evil) as I was hoping to ease into it with some more classics (which I still intend to do), but essentially what sets them apart from traditional Noir's is that they're filmed in color. It's so much easier to manipulate lighting to affect the mood in a black and white film, so how do they do it in color? Well they use the color itself to set the mood, bight colors contrast with a dark tone have a lot of resonating impact. Alfred Hitchock once said, "I used technicolor for the first time in ‘Rope,’ and we took all the color out of it." pushing further the contrast and affinity (things that are alike vs. not alike). That's not to say there's no darkness to express mood, but having color can be advantageous and disadvantageous depending on how you look at it. It adds an extra dimension of depth. Seeing these colors in film just pop right at you. Yeah I know Blu- Rays look nice but it's so different in this case. Seeing this movie in the highest resolution possible ass opposed to 35 mm is not the same.

I love the modern takes this film has on Noir. There are so many little things that I could point out that connect to a Noir, but I'll just talk about the big ones to me. First of all, this movie is set in present day (as made evident by comments about HBO's the Wire) but there is a serious lack of technology in the film. Dorothy's flip phone is dead and she asks to borrow one from a pair of drug dealers, which ultimately leads to her demise. This is the social commentary similar to that of Sunset Blvd. and Chinatown where they insinuate you are completely inept in Los Angeles without a car. Well here they are saying you are basically dead if you don't have a proper cell phone. Technology today is responsible for our survival for better or for worse. I like how it speaks so true to how we are today, and captures our society in this moment, just as those movies captured Los Angeles in their respective moments. I also love the foreshadowing dialogue and visual metaphors this movie has. One of the drug dealers has a line that basically says I wish you could hand the main character a tape of how the movie ends in a film so that they can avoid their ill fate, right before they meet Dorothy and she's murdered. There is also a visual metaphor of Dorothy taking an apple from Skipper, who is in a tree, right before he kills her, alluding to the bible and taking a bite from the forbidden fruit. Then there is the similarity between the ballroom lounges in 1940's Noir to the strip clubs in this movie. Basically every Noir back then had a scene in a ballroom lounge where our main character would meet his love interest or femme fetal (or both). Here, the emphasis on strip clubs can be likened to the same thing, as Dorothy and Mel meet for the first time in one, and Mel's love interest works there as well. Finally, there are so many little homages to other noir movies, they're so fun to find on your own. The most notable being how Dorthy is Mel's daughter, revealed to us in the final act, very similarly to Faye Dunaway's character and her relationship with her daughter/sister in Chinatown (there's even a line where Dorthy's Grandmother says "The name Muller still carries water in this town." Muller sounds fairly similar to Mulwray, the fictional family in Chinatown who were responsible for the towns water supply, which goes even further as it's connected to the history of Los Angeles and its corruption {Mulholland}). The film is called Too Late as a play on words. Mel is too late to save Dorothy, he's too late to start a family with her and Mary, he has a line at the end of act 2 where he says "I need to change my life," but dies at a drive in at the end of act 4 (symbolizing the death of film as well). I just love things like that. I asked Mr. Hauck on what some of his favorite Noirs were that inspired the film, and what impact he hoped this film would have on the movement of Film Noir. His response was that he never intended this to be a Noir when writing it. His favorite Noir's were Double Indemnity, Out of the Past, and Touch of Evil, but he said it was the books of famous Noir writers Raymond Chandler and the stories of fictional detective Lew Archer (created by Ross Macdonald) that really inspired him. While I won't argue the artistic intent of the director, it's curious how this film can be connected to things beyond books. When you can interpret art beyond what was initially intended and have it hold up, that's something truly special. Directors in the 40's didn't make their Noirs to "make Noirs," they made them because they dramatically and artistically reflected the pessimistic feelings many had at the time. I would like to say that this movie does the same for itself, and the world we live in today.

I don't know what else I can say about this. John Hawkes is so engaging and does a phenomenal job of portraying a vulnerable detective. He seems like he has it all together, he seems like he's invulnerable to the world around him, but in fact he is damaged and exposed. Just like a classic Noir Dic. The score and music is amazing as well. Music can be a big character in Noirs, and though it never becomes prominent, I feel that is the case here. Speaking of inanimate characters, the city of Los Angeles has never looked better on film and really does the job of immersing you in the tone of the film. Costume design, set design, all appropriate, all great. Just quality filmmaking. Hauck said he was amongst the last to be taught how to make movies with film, and he expressed how he didn't see how this movie could be made another way. Please go see this movie if you can. The only downside to it (which unfortunately has to play into its final score) is that a lot of it's charm is probably sucked out if it's not viewed in 35 mm. Because of how hard that is to view, it is an inescapable demerit. That being said this one is one of my favorites, and you best believe it will be a future cult classic amongst the underground film world. This one was really special to me. 9/10