Blu-ray Review HTF Blu-ray Review: TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A.

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  1. Michael Reuben

    Michael Reuben Studio Mogul

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    To Live and Die in L.A. (Blu-ray)


    Studio: Fox (MGM)
    Rated: R
    Film Length: 116 min.
    Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
    HD Encoding: 1080p
    HD Codec: AVC
    Audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1; French DD 5.1; Spanish DD 2.0 (mono)
    Subtitles: English; Spanish; Korean; Cantonese
    MSRP: $24.99
    Disc Format: 1 50 GB + 1 DVD
    Package: Keepcase
    Theatrical Release Date: Nov. 1, 1985
    Blu-ray Release Date: Feb. 2, 2010




    Introduction:

    It was worth the wait. After being pulled from the release schedule last year, William Friedkin’s one-of-a-kind cop film, To Live and Die in L.A., has arrived on Blu-ray with (appropriately for a film where everything is counterfeit) specifications utterly different from those listed on the disc jacket. The good news is that the real specs are better.



    The Feature:

    “The director of The French Connection is back on the street again!” That’s how the teaser trailer sold the film. During the summer of 1985, you couldn’t turn on the radio without hearing Wang Chung’s catchy title tune. Then the film opened in November, and audiences went “Huh?”

    Looking back now, you have to wonder why anyone was surprised. TL&DiLA is just as tough, gritty and unsparing as its director William Friedkin’s multiple Oscar winner from fourteen years earlier. If anything, the intervening years had darkened Friedkin’s vision of life, law enforcement and, most of all, Los Angeles. When he came across the novel by former Secret Service Agent Gerald Petievich, something struck a chord in Friedkin, and he decided to return to the cop genre. This time, though, it wouldn’t be about heroin. It would be about counterfeiting – a subject that seemed to resonate with Friedkin in the L.A. setting, perhaps because of his often-stormy relationship with the film industry headquartered there. Friedkin has said that the film is about a counterfeit world of counterfeit relationships. Could there be a more apt description of Hollywood? Some films are a valentine to a city; TL&DiLA is a poison pen letter.

    Richard Chance (William Petersen) is a Secret Service Agent in the L.A. office. In the film’s opening sequence, Chance and his shortly retiring partner, Jim Hart (Michael Greene), join a detail guarding Ronald Reagan during an official visit, and together they avert a serious threat to the president. Then, after a brief moment’s glory, Chance and Hart go back to their workaday lives chasing down counterfeiters and reporting to their “pencil-neck” boss, Bateman (Robert Downey, Sr., scarily convincing as a bureaucrat).

    Their chief target is Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe), a skilled artisan who, though he comes and goes openly, has managed to avoid being caught for years. Masters is a true enigma: a painter who routinely burns his work, a sociopathic killer who is capable of deep feeling, and a sexual eccentric whose relationship with his live-in girlfriend, Bianca (Debra Feuer), is, to say the least, difficult to define.

    Chance is obsessed with Masters, and as he tells John Vukovich (John Pankow), the new partner assigned to him over his objections, he doesn’t care what he has to do to get him. Vukovich says that’s OK with him, but he has no clue what he’s agreeing to.

    Masters’ full name is “Eric”, and Chance is usually just called “Chance”, but the alert viewer will note that they share the same first name (Rick/Richard). It’s not a coincidence. Like the cop and the criminal in many great crime stories, they’re two sides of the same coin, and in this film they’re even closer. Both are thrill seekers: Chance’s favorite recreation is “base jumping” off of bridges, while Masters thinks nothing of sauntering into a house that he knows is under surveillance in order to deal (harshly) with a client who’s cheated him. Both regard the law as a mere obstacle standing between them and whatever they want: Masters as a counterfeiter, and Chance as someone who’s decided that he wants Masters by any means necessary. And both have relationships that could charitably be described as unconventional: Masters with Bianca, and Chance with Ruth (Darlanne Fluegel), his informant, whom he sleeps with, threatens with jail and generally treats like dirt.

    The film puts the two Ricks on a collision course, but their paths toward each other aren’t straight. Friedkin has said that he hates watching films where he knows what’s going to happen next; so in TL&DiLA he keeps sending his cop and criminal around unexpected turns that end up centering them more firmly in each other’s sights. Caught in the middle is Carl Cody (John Turturro), a courier for Masters whom Chance arrests at LAX after a wild chase through the terminal and then tries to flip. Masters engages the best criminal lawyer in the state, Ben Grimes (Dean Stockwell, brilliantly amoral), and when that isn’t enough, hires a well-connected customer (Steve James), to arrange a hit inside the prison. Without giving anything away for those who haven’t seen the film, let’s just say that almost nothing in TL&DiLA goes according to plan.

    Then there’s the car chase. Even by today’s standards, it holds up well, but at the time no one had ever seen anything like it. Friedkin didn’t want to do another car chase unless it made sense in the context of the story and wasn’t just a repeat of what he’d done in The French Connection. He succeeded on both counts. When Chance and Vukovich can’t get their “pencil-neck” boss, Bateman, to approve enough cash for a sting operation on Masters, Chance does what any crazed law enforcement official hell-bent on a personal vendetta would do – he commits an armed robbery. And since nothing in this film goes according to plan, Chance and Vukovich suddenly find themselves pursued by vehicles filled with men brandishing automatic weapons across empty lots and railroad tracks, through the L.A. basin and finally along the freeway against traffic. No slow motion; no magic vehicles that fly and roll and still manage to hit the ground running; no special suspension that takes punishment unsustainable by any mechanism manufactured on Planet Earth. There is hardly a car chase since TL&DiLA that hasn’t borrowed from this sequence, whether it’s Frankenheimer’s Ronin or the Bourne films, and few have done it as well.

    A big reason why TL&DiLA holds up so well is the superb cast, even though it’s hard to see them now as they appeared at the time of the film’s release when most were unknown. (Friedkin has said that he prefers casting unfamiliar faces whenever possible.) Petersen and Pankow had never been in a feature film, but they slide into their roles with the same easy familiarity that would eventually make them household fixtures (on CSI and Mad About You, respectively). Dafoe had done small parts in films not widely seen, but he was still some years away from the Oscar nominations (for Platoon and Shadow of the Vampire) and iconic roles, both arthouse (The Last Temptation of Christ) and mainstream (Spider-Man), that would make his distinctive features familiar to millions. Turturro was similarly at the beginning of his career, but he took the purely functional part of Cody and turned him into a memorable character (a process that Friedkin describes in the commentary). Of the entire cast, Dean Stockwell was the only experienced film actor, but playing a sleazy criminal lawyer was a new direction for him.

    (One suspects that the two lead actresses, Debra Feuer and Darlanne Fluegel, were cast more for a certain look than for acting ability, but they bring what’s necessary to their parts.)

    Chance and Masters ultimately have their showdown, but like most things in TL&DiLA, it doesn’t go as planned. Friedkin likes to leave audiences with loose ends and open questions, and this film is no exception. What is the significance of the last thing Masters says to Vukovich? (Or does he even say it? On this latest viewing, I realized that we’re seeing things from Vukovich’s POV, which, at that particular moment, is so confused and traumatized that he can’t be sure what he’s hearing.) What is the meaning of the odd smile breaking over Ruth’s face in the last moments that she’s on screen? What exactly is the deal between Bianca and Masters?

    The film leaves you wondering about such things, but it leaves no doubt about the world in general. It ends with two couples. One of them is locked in a mutually exploitative embrace that may be gratifying from time to time but cannot end in anything but some form of destruction. The other appears loving on the surface, but given what we’ve seen of the two participants, why would anyone believe what they show on the surface?



    Video:

    This is how to do it right. TL&DiLA was shot fast and on the run, with a minimal crew and no attempt to create a glossy or polished image. The result is grainy, but it’s the kind of grain that accompanies a finely detailed image. The people who prepared this Blu-ray understood how to control the grain while preserving the image. In shot after shot, the detail on this disc is simply stunning, whether it’s Chance “base jumping” off the Vincent Thomas Bridge at San Pedro; the various junkyards, desert shacks, backstreets and waterfront warehouses where the agents’ investigations take them; or the outdoor recreational area at San Luis Obispo prison. Except for the presidential escort and Rick Masters’ home, there isn’t a single glamorous locale in TL&DiLA. Everywhere the film takes you is grungy, worn-down or broken. And on this Blu-ray, you can see it all.

    Colors are accurately presented according to the film’s naturalistic palette. This becomes evident at moments when the film departs from naturalism, such as the fluorescent green and burnt red of the opening titles, or the signature orange sunrise that appears near the beginning and end of the film like a pair of bookends (“to live” and “to die”). Black levels are also excellent, which is important for scenes in darkness, such as the kabuki-style dance performed by the troupe of which Bianca, Masters’ girlfriend, is a member, or the pre-dawn meet at Masters’ gym.



    Audio:

    The soundtrack for TL&DiLA is dominated by two things: the score by Wang Chung (who never scored another film) and abrupt eruptions of either sound or silence that jolt your attention. Friedkin’s commentary confirms that the film’s soundtrack was remixed for the 2003 DVD, and while I don’t know if further work was done for the Blu-ray, the sonic superiority of the DTS-HD MA track very quickly becomes evident.

    Wang Chung’s instrumentals make frequent use of electronic distortion, and it’s easy for these tones to get muddied, especially when they’re layered with sound effects like cash registers and gunshots, as they are during the film’s title sequence. That happened on the DVD’s Dolby Digital track, but it doesn’t happen here. Musical notes and sound effects remain distinct, and this is true throughout the Blu-ray’s lossless track. The greater fidelity also helps subtler ambient noises come through with greater force, although TL&DiLA could not be described as having an immersive mix. The film was originally released in Dolby Surround, and rear channel effects are sparingly used. The film's use of sound is more expressionist than realist – for example, in the way the driving title sequence abruptly cuts to the sound of Rick Masters unfurling one of his canvases. Whatever the sound, though, everything on this track is clean and distinct in a way it never has been before. Bass extension is also powerful, both for the musical selections and for scenes involving explosions, gunfire and flames.



    Special Features:

    With the exception of a few trailers, all of the special features are on the 2003 special edition DVD.

    Commentary with Director William Friedkin. Friedkin does great commentaries, and this one for the 2003 DVD ranks with his best. He talks at length about researching the film, casting, shooting, editing and even remastering for DVD. Along the way, he offers intriguing insights into both his working methods and his views about films in general.

    Alternate Ending Featurette (4:3/1:85:1, non-enhanced) (8:39). It’s impossible to discuss this without spoilers. Suffice it to say that Friedkin hated the alternate ending, and with good reason. The ending itself is included as a separate selection.

    Deleted Scene Featurette (4:3/1:85:1, non-enhanced) (4:25). The scene is brief and focuses on Vukovich. Friedkin says that he can no longer remember why he cut it and wishes that he could restore it. The scene is included (in what appears to be a videotape version) as a separate selection.

    Still Gallery. A series of black-and-white production stills.

    Trailers. The DVD contains both the teaser trailer (which uses voiceover narration and Wang Chung’s music) and the longer, flashier theatrical trailer. Both are enhanced for 16:9. It also contains non-enhanced trailers for Dark Blue and the DVDs of La Femme Nikita and Fargo.

    The Blu-ray features an HD version of the film’s theatrical trailer, as well as trailers (also in HD) for Hart’s Way, The Usual Suspects and Bulletproof Monk.



    In Conclusion:

    Friedkin is neither the first nor the only filmmaker to portray the duality of cop and criminal or the stresses of working undercover. (Michael Mann felt so proprietary about the whole topic that he sued over TL&DiLA – and lost.) But I’m hard-pressed to name another film with such a bleak view of the subject matter or of humanity in general. The bone-weary cynicism of the film’s perspective makes its irresistible energy all the more impressive. It propels itself forward on sheer cinematic moxie, and it looks and sounds like nothing else before or since.



    Equipment used for this review:

    Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (DTS-HD MA decoded internally and output as analog)
    Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
    Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
    Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
    Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
    Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
    SVS SB12-Plus sub
     
  2. David Wilkins

    David Wilkins Supporting Actor

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    Excellent.
     
  3. Rachael B

    Rachael B Producer

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    I waited about 9 months for this one....it was delayed 3 times. It was worth the wait for some "play dough".
     
  4. Adam Gregorich

    Owner

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  5. Douglas Monce

    Douglas Monce Producer

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    That link doesn't seem to work.

    Doug
     
  6. Adam Gregorich

    Owner

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    It seems like it doesn't work for people using Firefox for some reason. Parker uploaded it to YouTube so give this a shot:

     
  7. Douglas Monce

    Douglas Monce Producer

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    Ah thanks Adam and Parker!
     
  8. Hollywoodaholic

    Hollywoodaholic Edge of Glory?

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    For anyone who can't play the clip, allow me to transcribe Mr. Friedkin's remarks ... "Buy my Blu-ray, it looks and sounds great." Oh, and I did.
     
  9. Rachael B

    Rachael B Producer

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    Me too....I got it the week it came out....It's "play dough" in my hands. It sure body-slams the LD I once had, which I gave to my brother. I never had the DVD.
     

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