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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


L.A. Confidential is a movie whose reputation has grown over a decade. Although critically praised and Oscar-nominated upon its 1997 release, the film was only a mid-level hit, earning about $64 million at the box office. Not bad, but not exactly a blockbuster either. Like The Shawshank Redemption (another quasi-overlooked critics' fave), DVD gave the film a platform to be discovered by a much wider audience who, finally clued in to its brilliance, enthusiastically embraced it. To celebrate the tenth anniversary, Warner Home Video is releasing a 2-disc special edition, loaded with great bonus features. This is a DVD worthy of the masterpiece it celebrates.

But first, let's recap: Set in 1950's Hollywood, L.A. Confidential tells the story of three very different cops on the LAPD. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is a cool cop who also serves as technical advisor for a “Dragnet”-style TV show called “Badge of Honor.” The fame that comes from the show is as important to him as upholding the law. Bud White (Russell Crowe) is a more troubled cop. His inner demons lead him to take his aggressions out on wife-beaters, whom he pummels mercilessly whenever he comes across one. Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) is a young cop who believes everything should be by-the-book. He's incorruptible, a symbol of decency and integrity, a fact that dismays his boss, Dudley Smith (James Cromwell). Smith worries that Exley lacks the intensity it takes to deal with criminals in a pinch.

When a fellow cop is killed in a mass murder following an internal scandal, all three cops are drawn into the fold. They begin investigating the murders - dubbed the Night Owl killings after the coffee shop in which they occur - for different reasons. White was the dead cop's partner and wants revenge. Exley believes there is something not quite right about the murders, which leads him to seek the truth. Vincennes believes some of the answers might be found with Sid Hudgeons (Danny DeVito), a yellow journalist who runs "Hush-Hush," one of those 50's tabloids that reported the illicit doings of various celebrities.

Hudgeons is a man in the know, especially when it comes to sex and drugs; he knows which celebs are sleeping together and which ones are smoking marijuana and shooting heroin. He even arranges for Vincennes to bust these people in front of the Hush-Hush cameras. Hudgeons offers a few tips on the slayings, which lead all three cops to a millionaire named Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn) who has an unexpected business, and a mysterious woman named Lynn Brackett (Kim Basinger) who bears an unusual likeness to Veronica Lake.

L.A. Confidential is packed with neat twists and turns. The manner in which all these characters converge is both fun and dramatically compelling. You also have to pay close attention. Certain people have information that other people do not. As a result, different cops have different parts of the mystery solved at different times. The screenplay for the film - by Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson (who also directed) - does a skillful job keeping everyone and everything straight.

Adding to the engrossing story is a handful of outstanding performances from some top actors. Kevin Spacey is superb as the ego-driven Vincennes. The actor - who I've never seen give a bad performance - keeps you riveted with his character's unclear motives. You can never be quite sure where Vincennes is coming from, whether he's decent or crooked. The fact that you care is a testament to Spacey's immense talent. Russell Crowe, meanwhile, should have received an Oscar nomination as the troubled Bud White. Crowe shows you a man tearing himself apart from the inside in one of the most complex performances I've ever seen. And as the moral center, Guy Pearce does brilliant work. His Exley manages to maintain his inner scruples, all while realizing that different situations require different definitions of morality.

As if the story and performances weren't enough, L.A. Confidentiallooking film. I love the period atmosphere created by director Hanson (who has since gone on to make pictures like 8 Mile and In Her Shoes). The whole underworld of 1950's Los Angeles, including the sleazy "confidential" school of journalism, is beautifully evoked with lush cinematography and flawless production design. Few films do such a good job of establishing a time and place in the viewer's mind.

Based on a novel by James Ellroy, L.A. Confidential is one of my favorite films of all time. Every scene in the movie is good; there is not one bad scene. The story's climax is both exciting and thought-provoking as Exley is forced to make a decision that determines who he is as both a cop and as a man. There are no easy answers for the characters in this story, which is refreshing to see in a mainstream Hollywood release. In its day, L.A. Confidential lost the Best Picture Oscar to some film about a sinking boat. Nothing against Titanic (which is a fine film in its own right), but ten years later, my original opinion remains unchanged: This was the best film of 1997.

( out of four)

DVD Features:

The new 2-disc special edition easily trumps the previous DVD release. On disc one, the movie is presented in its original widescreen aspect ratio, with several audio options. Of course, you can listen to the film itself in 5.1 surround sound. There is also a 5.1 music-only track that features Jerry Goldsmith's stunning score. Best of all is the full-length audio commentary that includes key players, including critic/historian Andrew Sarris; author James Ellroy; actors Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Kevin Spacey, James Cromwell, David Strathairn, Kim Basinger, and Danny DeVito; producer Michael Nathanson; co-writer Brian Helgeland; cinematographer Dante Spinotti; production designer Jeannine Oppewall; and costume designer Ruth Myers. You will find tons of valuable information here. Finally, there is an assortment of trailers and commercials for the movie.

Disc two is even more jam-packed with goodies. First up is "Whatever You Desire: Making L.A. Confidential, a half-hour behind-the-scenes documentary that gives you an overview of how the film came to be made. Director Curtis Hanson talks about his desire to use the then-unknown Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce in starring roles, even though it meant having to find funding from outside the studio. A lot of attention is also paid to the physical production of the movie, as Hanson wanted to have a vibrant tone/atmosphere without falling into the clichés of film noir.

A subsequent feature goes even more in-depth into the look. "Sunlight and Shadow: The Visual Style of L.A. Confidential" focuses on how production designer Jeannine Oppewall, costume designer Ruth Myers, and director of photography Dante Spinotti brought the 1950's time period to life in such a way that it became essentially another character in the film. Particularly enlightening is the story Oppewall tells about finding the location for the "Hollywood pot bust" scene, with a vintage-looking movie theater in the background. What's interesting here is that you discover so many things that have been subliminally inserted into the visual design of the picture; while the audience is not cognizant of these stylistic choices, they nevertheless add up to make an enormous impact.

"A True Ensemble" runs about 20 minutes and focuses on the cast members, who talk about creating their characters. Spacey is perhaps most interesting as he dissects his famous death scene. It's been widely noted that you can "see the light go out" in Spacey's eyes as his character takes his final breath. Special effects were not used - it was all the actor's talent, and he fills us in on how he achieved one of the most convincing death sequences in cinema history.

"L.A. Confidential: From Book to Screen" details how Hanson and Helgeland pared down Ellroy's thick novel into something that could work on screen. The writers talk about things they had to drop, shuffle, or combine in order to create a workable screenplay. Ellroy is also on hand, and he seems to be okay with the changes made. This feature is fascinating as it reveals how challenging it is to adapt a novel for a completely different form of media.

A few extras have been recycled from the original DVD release but are still worthy. "Off the Record" features cast and crew interviews recorded at the time (the interviews on the features mentioned above are recent). "Photo Pitch" is Hanson's recreation for us of the way he showed era-specific photos to studio chiefs and collaborators in order to convey the "feel" he was hoping to achieve. "The L.A. of L.A. Confidential" is an interactive map that spotlights significant locations within the story.

The final bonus feature is the pilot episode of a TV series based on the film. The show was never picked up, despite the presence of stars Keifer Sutherland (as Jack Vincennes) and Eric Roberts. Off all the features, this one is possibly the most compelling because it offers a glimpse of how the characters might have lived on in a television format.

All this great material easily earns the 2-disc special edition of L.A. Confidential the designation of "must-buy." Sweetening the deal even further is an accompanying CD that contains six songs used in the movie, from artists such as Dean Martin and Chet Baker. Put it all together and this adds up to one of the best and most impressive DVD packages in any fan's collection.

Check out the official website: L.A. Confidential

Or purchase it online here

L.A. Confidential: Two Disc Special Edition - Own it on DVD September 23

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