Paramount // 1997 // 91 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // April 20th, 2000
The deep dark underbelly of Hollywood...television style.
DVD has opened up different venues to offer for your buying dollar; from films to television shows to games and "relaxation" discs. This is a new one though -- the failed television pilot. I'm assuming it's a failed one; after all, it's three years old, obviously meant to be a pilot for a series, and no series. Why it didn't become a series I can probably predict, but it's not as bad as it sounds. Actually what didn't become a series did make for an above average TV movie, which Paramount has released as a full frame, bare bones disc. It ain't Braveheart, not even close, but it's not bad.
This review could have gone either way. I found myself already coming up with glib phrases to cut this thing down when I was looking at the case: a full frame, made for TV job with only one name actor among the cast. I figured it would be a bad knock-off of any private eye series you could name, with this one being set in Hollywood. But in the interest of fairness I set those thoughts aside and gave it a chance (my evil twin keeps trying to have me give this attitude up for Lent).
What I decided after it was over was that it was really pretty good. Not at all the stereotypical private eye offering. Instead you have an ensemble cast that the pilot tried to give depth to. No quirky sideline guy who's only role was to be the guy who got the laugh track going once in awhile. The show would have been pretty dark, actually. What at first I thought would be a noir-wannabe, became a pseudo noir show with a bit of heart amidst the gritty streets. Several of the performances were quite good. I'm not so sure it would have made a great series, and considering the subject matter I don't think it had a shot, but it wouldn't have taken much to make this a really good movie. As it stands it wasn't bad.
The story is of an ex LAPD cop named Stan Navarro, played by Edward James Olmos (Selena, and about a hundred TV jobs). He now heads up a private detective firm called LA Confidential. It has 11 employees, making the group an even dozen. As a pilot for a possible series, the film goes somewhat into each of the cast to give them some background; some feel an executive can get about them. One is an ex-DEA agent who went too far undercover and almost never came out, one is an ex cop who has been fired from 5 cities for unnecessary violence, and another is a would-be studio mogul. Like most pilots, this takes the form of a long television episode. Here we have the firm handling several cases, from the mundane ones like figuring out who is skimming the take at a strip club, to real behind the scenes Hollywood work such as determining if a first time director would be likely to skip with the production money. But the main emphasis for this show is of a teenage girl who has been used and dumped by a famous Hollywood director; now that he's done with her he wants her to just go away with a nice sum of cash to soften the blow. Unfortunately the girl is pregnant with the director's love child, and is calling him at home begging to stay in his life. This is all too unseemly for a high profile member of Hollywood elite, so they give LA Confidential a call to "handle" it. Normally this type of job would be beneath them, but times are tough and they are informed that if they don't take the job someone meaner and possibly violent would handle it instead. How the team works together to handle these cases, and how things work out with the girl is the main thrust of the show.
Enough was given about the various cast members to make me interested in them. I liked the combination of humanity and professionalism the firm used in handling its cases. Perhaps what I liked most about the film though, was how amidst the seamiest sides of Hollywood, and seeing all the foibles and horrid behavior of the people at all levels of the pyramid, was how several of the characters were still trying to become part of it. One is writing a screenplay, while another tries to get scripts sold, and another is a would-be actor, and so on. It is the epitome of Hollywood, warts and all. No matter how trashy it can be, everyone wants to be there. Herein lies the show's failure to make it as a series. I don't think Hollywood was willing to make a weekly series that pointed at themselves. To soften it would have made it a different show entirely, and not a good one.
Since this was made for television, all we get is a full frame picture. In this case I don't believe any other aspect ratio was used so no information is cropped. As is usual with Paramount, the picture is very good. Black levels, shadow detail, and colors are all fine. No grain, film defects, or artifacts. It is very clean and better than a television broadcast in quality. Just what I'd expect from Paramount, who always seems to deliver on that front.
The sound was Dolby Surround, again befitting its television roots. But the soundstage was wide and spacious, with plenty of punch to the sound effects and score. Surround use was infrequent but subtle. There wasn't much of anything to do for your subwoofer; there was surprisingly little of things going boom for a detective show. A decent soundtrack, with very clear dialogue and everything else you need for the film; just not something to show off your system with.
How badly I criticize this one really depends on how I categorize it. As a film it had a fair number of weaknesses; but much less so as a television pilot. For example, no way can you and did they flesh out all the subplots and background for 12 main characters and a few antagonists in an hour and a half. They would have really needed to whittle down the cast or number of tracks the story ran on to make it a real film. Several of the cases being worked on got left hanging; obviously meant to be taken up later in a future episode that never happened.
Another big weakness with this, and all made for television discs turned into a full length feature, is the pacing. They have to pace things to fit the commercial cycle for television and that simply doesn't translate all that well into a full length feature seen all at once. You can easily place the commercial breaks as things get exciting and it's time to fade to black. Taken as television you expect it, taken as a movie I'd have to be much harder on it.
Next on my list is the sex and violence. Why this disc has an R rating I can't begin to fathom. I really hate obligatory scenes in strip clubs on television shows. Strip clubs with girls who never take their tops off is un-American. This has a subplot taking place in such a club but nothing ever gets close to that R rating, and what violence there is offered isn't as bad as any episode of "Walker, Texas Ranger."
Lastly, the disc. No extras at all make this a lesser value. At the least I'd have liked to see production notes telling me how this was screened, why it didn't make it as a series, and other behind the scenes information. At least it has English subtitles for the hard of hearing. I don't usually get into menus unless they are especially good or bad, but this isn't good. One static menu page and 14 chapter stops. Not enough chapters to really take advantage of the format in my opinion. I must also mention the case advertises "Dolby Digital English Dolby Surround." I know of no such soundtrack; and this one was pure Pro Logic.
I hate having to be so ambivalent here. But I must; because this really had promise for television, and I saw some glimmers of real viewing goodness in it. But as a film it lacks quite a bit, and the disc doesn't have any extras or much to say "Buy me." I'd go so far as to recommend it as a rental; especially if there is any chance of it ever becoming a series. Unfortunately I don't think Hollywood is willing to show off ever more skeletons in its closet every week so that is unlikely.
The cast of Hollywood Confidential are acquitted for giving it a real college try on what might have been a good series. Paramount is sentenced to putting out some more catalog titles we actually are waiting for though. I can't imagine there was much clamor for failed television pilots from the buying public. Furthermore they are sentenced to putting out extras, at least minimal ones for every disc. And get someone to work on your menus while you're at it. I know Paramount is capable of much more than this.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 91 Minutes
Release Year: 1997
MPAA Rating: Rated R