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‘Chinatown 4K UHD Blu-ray (review)

The trouble is, it’s just not true.

This is a movie about how your grandparents were phonies and the city you live in is built on top of a heap of killings that no one ever did time for. It catalogs each of their sins and taboos, unspoken in those older pictures, and slaps you in the face with how unaffected the characters are by the commonplace ones (the casual racism and wife-beating are the examples that spring to mind here) which makes them even more shocking because there is no moral center to oppose them. This is simply how it was then, and you are in the midst of it, participating silently.

More significantly, those 40’s noir pictures, like EC Comics, were Old Testament judgment: Everyone who sinned, in turn, died. It didn’t matter how they justified it, or (most importantly) how sympathetic they were. Noirs were working class morality tales, and the price you paid for being interesting enough to hear about was your life.

Chinatown is unique because precisely the wrong people succeed, the wrong people die, and our hero (and again, we, as the observers of such) is completely ineffectual to the whole process. The magic of Chinatown is that it eloquently captures the feeling that the world is shit and the time for doing something about it was before you were born.

That’s the true link between this film and those older classics, by the way, the genuine feeling that fate was out to get you from the beginning. The feeling that forces beyond your control and comprehension have marked you for ruin, and no matter how tough and clever you may be you’re not only going to lose, you’re going to find out you never even kept the game close at the end.

Chinatown is a legend, and legends get odes written in their honor.

The Two Jakes, it’s much-delayed sequel, is included as a bonus Blu-ray, however is just a film and films get analyzed here.

The Two Jakes is a sequel made 16 years after a classic film without the services of Roman Polanski, the director or Robert Evans, the executive producer of the original. Screenwriter Robert Towne was tapped to direct originally but the dreaded “creative differences” reared their ugly head, and Jack Nicholson himself took on directorial duties.

The film has an amazing set up: the first thirty minutes feel calculated to make even the most jaded fan of twisting LA private eye movies sit up and take notice with an older, wiser, Jake caught in a murder investigation when his client (also named Jake, and played by Harvey Keitel) unexpectedly kills his business partner during a routine matrimonial sting.

Towne was deeply proud of this second script and you can see all the elements where a writer would fall in love with it. Unfortunately, despite very good direction from Nicholson, no one is there to pare it down and punch it up and it falls apart at just about the time the new story’s connections to Chinatown become apparent.

Whereas Chinatown was focused, disciplined, and assured The Two Jakes doesn’t know what it wants to be and deeply suffers from comparison. This comparison is exacerbated by the baffling choice to connect the story explicitly to the original film. If any genre would have allowed for a fresh story with no literal connection to the original it should have been this.

The best part of the second film, and the biggest reflection that this is Jack’s movie instead of an ensemble work, is the emphasis on the actor’s duel between him and Harvey Keitel. Keitel’s laid back, quirky, menace pairs brilliantly with the later Jack’s wolfish charisma. Unfortunately, by the end it becomes clear that there’s nothing really at stake story wise, and the film doesn’t so much come to an end as stop spinning its wheels.

Extras include commentary, featurettes, and trailer.

Chinatown earns the highest recommendation and even though it’s included, The Two Jakes is not recommended.

 

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