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L.A. On Film

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Over the weekend I was at a Circuit City browsing around and found a copy of the 1992 Laurence Fishburne film Deep Cover for six dollars. Being a Cupcake who appreciates everything and anything that is deeply discounted, especially something as badass as this film, I scooped it up like Baskin-Robbins. I was introduced to this film a long time ago by my compadre Isaac and had forgotten how well done it is. Put is this way — most of the time there's nothing better than, as Jules Winnfield once said, "a bunch of gangsters doing a bunch of ganster shit."

Watching this film over the course of the next couple days, it began to occur to The Cupcake that films involving the City of Angels are never easy endeavors. Even the comedies carry with them a sense that L.A. is a less-than-forgiving place wrought with desparation and depression. So, following this epiphany, I began an internal debate over my favorite L.A. films. To properly do this, however, I first established four simple ground rules:

1. This is not a "Top X" list – I hate "Top 10s" (with maybe the exception of Letterman's) and made a 2008 resolution with myself to get away from rank-ordering things; it's trite and too subjective. This rule will also absolve me of having to include every film ever made that had some connection to L.A. Instead, this is just a selection of films from my collection that I personally like. So, no need to roast me for not including L.A. Confidential or Terminator 2.

2. For a film to be included, L.A. needs to be the setting's focal point. This means that, theoretically, Die Hard cannot be considered an "L.A. film" since 90% of it takes place inside Nakatomi Plaza.

3. Because celluloid depictions of L.A. are usually so desparate, desolate (morally, anyway), and depressing, I've assigned each film a depress-o-meter rating where 1 means it's fodder for Disney audiences and 10 means "fasten your seatbelts for Requiem for a Dream-style anxiety."

4. All genres count.

Here we go, in no particular order:

Collateral (2004): Tom Cruise with gray hair, cool suit, and a very difficult job (hitman). Jamie Foxx with almost no hair, sweat suit, and a very difficult job (cabbie). Way better than Heat (see below) in my opinion since it dispenses with the pleasantries and extraneous character development and instead moves at almost-real-time through a meticulous night of witness "tampering" on behalf of a Colombian drug king pin. Cruise, despite his tendency to annoy, is flawless as Vincent. And Michael Mann uses the city of L.A. visually in a way that is superior to any other film on this list. Depress-o-meter says: 5

Deep Cover (1992): Larry Fishburne is killer as an undercover narc working for the DEA who, at the beginning of the film, has never taken a drink or done any drugs thanks to a personal tragedy that befell him as a child. By the end of the film, he approaches the threshold of self-destruction but is stone-cold (Steve Austin!) cool enough to reel himself in just in time to nail both the distributor and the king pin he was tasked with bringing down as well as unforseen-yet-alluded-to elements of corruption in the state-department and the CIA. Other standouts include Jeff Goldblum (WTF is he doing in this film?) and some actress named Kamala Lopez-Dawson who plays the scariest crack-addicted mother ever. Depress-o-meter says: 7

Blade Runner (1982): Okay, so my rules don't exclude future "interpretations" of L.A., a weakness perhaps. Nevertheless, this '40s-style noir-thriller set in 2019 is replete with flying cars, extreme pollution, and the coolest picture-scanning equipment this side of reality. Not so much depressing as it is a stark indictment of how for-granted humans take living and life itself – despite, of course, Rutger Hauer killing everything that moves. The star that burns twice as bright burns half as long. Depress-o-meter says: 5

Save the Tiger (1973):
Harry Stoner. Morally decayed, tax-cheater, makes an extra buck by getting clients laid… put it this way, Jack Lemmon won an Oscar. Pinned into a corner, Harry decides to burn his warehouse down to collect an insurance settlement after giving the most rapid-fire, four-minute cinematic world history lesson in, well, history. And the final scene would make Dick Cheney weep. Okay, maybe that's stretching it, but you gotto save those tigers. Depress-o-meter says: 7

Fletch (1985):
"I write a column under the name Jane Doe," says Chevy Chase at the apex of his career as L.A. Times investigative reporter Irwin M. Fletcher. The one-liners roll like tumbleweeds as he tries to figure out why Otter wants to be murdered and why Norm doesn't make any money off the drugs he sells out of his burger shack on the beach. Fred "The Dorf" Dorfman. Oldsmo-buick. Matress Police. I rest my case. Depress-o-meter says: 2

Escape from L.A. (1996):
Not as good as its predecessor, but ten times campier. Escape from L.A. again visits a sort-of-post-apocalyptic world where the the nation's fate (or in this case, what's left of it) rests in the hands of Snake Plisskin. This time L.A. has been separated from the mainland thanks to the "Big One" and has been relegated to a deregulated Las Vegas. Kurt Russell reprises his role with flair, but Cliff Robertson as a Christian fundmentalist President is truly eerie. He actually reminds me a lot of George W. Bush. Good bad fun. Depress-o-meter says: 2

Heat (1996):
Billed as a "Los Angeles Crime Saga", Heat is a serviceable cops 'n' robbers film of the highest technical order. Robert DeNiro portrays a master theif searching for one last score before disappearing to the greener pastures of, um, New Zealand. Al Pacino is the detective who stalks him. The film is great to look at and the set-pieces are executed with cold precision. Unfortunately, too much time is wasted on useless character developement (e.g. Pacino's annoying wife, DeNiro's forced romance). Why, for example, is Natalie Portman even in the film? Mann would have been wise to adhere to the nuts and bolts approach he took with Thief, a film that touches on many of the same themes but doesn't get bogged down in them by keeping it stripped down and centered around the trade/craft of burglary. Despite these flaws, the cornerstone of this film, the bank robbery scene, is epic: Italian suits, automatic weapons, Brian Eno soundtrack, and the longest, frenzied shoot-out ever recorded on film. Depress-o-meter says: 5

To Live & Die In L.A. (1985):
Secret Service agents track master counterfeiter after said counterfeiter offs fellow agent. William Petersen is awesome as agent Richard Chance, played sarcastically with a streak of Harry Callahan. Unfortunately for Dick, he takes a shotgun spread to the face about three-quarters into the film, leaving the audience with no more protagonist – the ulitmate trick that went over like a lead balloon with the studio. The DVD contains an alternate ending preferred by the studio execs that is, seriously, one of the worst things The Cupcake has ever seen — how do you survive a shotgun to the face? Why would there be a secret service station in the middle of nowhere on a mountain top in Alaska? Great use of L.A., especially the rush hour chase going the wrong way on the freeway. Depress-o-meter says: 7

Chinatown (1974): In my humble opinion, Chinatown is the best L.A. film ever made, but we're not ranking here so I'll refrain from any more comments like that. Nicholson is incredible. Dunaway is incredible. Huston is incredible. The writing is incredible. The cinematography is incredible. The score is incredible. Even the extras are incredible. No spoilers or pontification here… just see it for the first time or for another time. It's a masterpiece that says more, literally, about L.A. – and how it got to be "L.A." – than any of the other films on this list combined. Depress-o-meter says: 9

Honorable mentions:

  • Pulp Fiction (1996) – Don't be tellin' me about no foot massage!
  • Less Than Zero (1987) – It's better than you remember and a helluva lot more depressing…
  • Colors (1988) – Sean Penn. Robert Duvall. Excellent.
  • Friday (1995) – You ain't got no job and you ain't got shit to do…
  • Boyz N the Hood (1991) – Depress-o-meter says: 10
  • Fast Times at Ridgmont High (1982) – More Sean Penn. More excellence.


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