I Love L.A.!: Our Favorite Stories Set in La La Land's Locale
This year, three of the front runners for the Academy Awards and The TFS Awards are movies whose locations are as important to the movie as the story, cinematography, directors and production artists. As we get to the finish line of awards seasons, we wanted to highlight some other great movies from Miami (Moonlight), Boston (Manchester By The Sea) and Los Angeles (La La Land). Today, we head to the coast to visit some of our favorite stories from the City of Angels.
Less Than Zero (Marek Kaniekska, 1987)
Few films can capture the general feeling of malaise masqueraded by pretty images like in this adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis's debut novel. The sets are impeccable, the people are beautiful, the water is an almost unnaturally perfect shade of blue, and all couldn't be more superficial. Los Angeles is a beautiful place made to be extra dolled up here, and Ellis's contempt shines through loud and clear. Clay (Andrew McCarthy) comes back to LA for Christmas after a semester away at college only to find that things have begun to spiral out of control in his time away. His model girlfriend Blair (Jami Gertz) has started abusing cocaine and his best friend Julian's (Robert Downey Jr.) life is in shambles after his record company startup went downhill. His drug addiction has worsened and in order to pay off a huge debt to a former classmate (James Spader), Julian has been forced to start prostituting himself. Clay sets off on an an ultimately doomed mission to save his best friend by getting him off the drugs and wipe away the debt. It's a dark story, but it does look pretty.
- Marcus Irving
Fast Times at Ridgemont High (Amy Heckerling - 1982)
This was a seminal (pun so very much intended) film for a whole generation of kids in the 1980s. Los Angeles, at this time, just felt like one big oasis. Sun, swimming pools, and good music all year round. The high schoolers going to Ridgemont High probably aren’t any different than kids going to school today (apart from the Pat Benatar hair-cuts and everyone now has a cell phone). On the surface, this could look like just another teen movie, but it’s a hell of a lot more. There are some real issues being addressed here. I think this (or The Last American Virgin, another Los Angeles-based, mighty fine 80s movie in its own right) was the first film I watched that dealt with abortion. The cast in this film is pretty incredible; Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Forest Whitaker, Phoebe Cates, and Ray Walston. Even Nicolas Cage, Eric Stoltz, and Anthony Edwards turn up in small roles. I cannot, in good conscience, leave out (proto-Judd Nelson) Robert Romanus’ memorable turn as the ticket-scalping ladies’ man, Damone. The music is also stellar: Led Zeppelin, Cheap Trick, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, The Go-Go’s, Jackson Browne, The Cars and more. If you want to know what it was like growing up in Los Angeles during the 80s, watch this and be oh so very jealous.
- Sarah Jane
Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999)
Paul Thomas Anderson's third film is an epic, sprawling, ensemble-based look at several interconnected people living in the San Fernando Valley, played by the likes of actors such as Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, Tom Cruise, John C. Reilly, and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. Much like his idol Robert Altman, who directed 1992's Short Cuts, Anderson uses the far-reaching environment to tell a microcosmic story about characters whose lives have been irrevocably changed for worse as a result of love, either out of romantic longing/companionship or from the selfish acts of others. Almost like a period piece of angst towards the new millennium, Magnolia culminates in a now-iconic moment of near-biblical fantasy, that while some would argue is too on the nose, should be looked more at as a message that some things in life have no easy answers, and that only through forgiveness can we become masters of our own fate. Plus, that final shot of Melora Walters looking straight into the camera is easily one of my favorite cinematic moments of all time.
- Rob Trench
To Live and Die In L.A. (William Friedkin, 1985)
La La Land and To Live and Die in L.A. offer up to all-timer Los Angeles freeway sequences. In La La Land, director Damien Chazelle shut down stretch of a carpool lane to shoot the opening number “Another Day of Sun”. In To Live and Die in L.A., director William Friedkin shut down a stretch of freeway to shoot one of the greatest car chases ever, rivaling the Friedkin’s own work in The French Connection. Both, La La Land and To Live and Die in L.A. are worlds apart tonally, in these freeway sequences they each aim one singular idea — Los Angeles traffic sucks. The nearly 10-minute car chase in Friedkin’s Wang Chung-scored, neon-drenched, and distinctly-80s crime thriller is nothing short of incredible. Our heroes, Secret Service agents Richard Chance (William Petersen) and John Vukovich (John Pankow), are being hunted down by FBI after a bust gone bad. They go through back alleys, train yards, and the L.A. River canal to shake them off. Then, thrillseeker Chance, in one last ditch effort, decides to drive the wrong way into oncoming L.A. freeway traffic, causing havoc and pileups along the way. The genius of the freeway chase is Friedkin’s idea to switch the flow of traffic while shooting to accomplish two things — he wanted a better angle of the industrial plants in the background and he wanted to convey a sense of absolute chaos. It’s just another day of sun of Los Angelenos — a high profile director shutting down L.A. traffic just to express the turmoil that is L.A. traffic.
- Marcelo Pico
Afternoon Delight (Jill Soloway, 2013)
Jill Soloway’s take on motherhood and disaffection can be off putting, but it’s hypnotic. Rachel and Jeff (Kathryn Hahn and Josh Radnor) having grown apart, attempt to spice up their relationship with a visit to a strip club, where they meet young McKenna (Juno Temple). Rachel attempts to friend McKenna, and takes her in when she ends up homeless. McKenna and Rachel grow close, with Rachel confiding her insecurities and McKenna opening up about her work as a sex worker. Put off by this, Rachel and McKenna’s friendship is on thin ice and plunges into the cold water after an incident between McKenna and a friends husband. This brush with a more hand to mouth life leads Rachel to rediscover her marriages happiness. Afternoon Delight is a an intersection of independent cinema and auteurist vision. Kathryn Hahn embodies Solloway’s #firstworldproblems, setting up a wonderful partnership that they explore in long form storytelling in Transparent and I Love Dick. It’s also the ‘I’d like to talk to you about the Avengers Initiative’ of Los Feliz set media, a portrait of West Coast bubble-life that’s as aspirational as it is aggravating. We wouldn’t have Solloway’s Transparent, Judd Apatow’s Love or Stephen Falk’s You’re The Worst without it. It’s a modern L.A. story told outside ‘the industry’, and one I think will be looked back upon as hugely influential to the next 10 years of storytelling.
- Nick Isaac
Valley Girl (Martha Coolidge, 1982)
Like, oh my god, I love this movie sooooo much. So what if the bitchin’ dialogue sounds like it was written by some grody old men who’ve never been to the Valley, but wanted to cash in on Moon Unit Zappa’s song “Valley Girl”? The movie is still so totally awesome. Randy, played the ultra-hot Nicolas Cage, is a dude from Hollywood who hooks up with this not-really-that-hot chick, Julie. Now, Julie is from the Valley and she has some friends who are like, so totally, bogus. Plus, her boyfriend is, like, totally gross. I mean, like, you know what’s going to happen, but who cares cos Randy is to die for. The music is also so rad, it’s one of the best things about the movie. The Plimsoles’ “Million Miles Away” and Modern English’s “I’ll Melt with You” are like, all time classics. At one point, Randy takes Julie “over the hill” into Hollywood and it’s, like, such a bitchin’ montage of that area of Los Angeles. Makes me homesick every time I watch it. Yeah, I get it, it’s so totally dated. I mean, who likes the 80s and stuff? This is like a John Hughes movie, but better because, like don’t cha know, Nic Cage?
- Sarah Jane
About Last Night (Steve Pink, 2014)
About Last Night completely came and went from the theaters for me. I knew about Michael Ealy, and Kevin Hart was on the start of the roll that’s made him one of the biggest names in Hollywood. I caught up with it, and I’ll be clear, it’s ok. It’s not groundbreaking romantic comedy; it’s a ‘burgers to high and fries’ movie comfort food. But what sets it apart is that it looks amazing. Michael Barret is the cinematographer, who previously worked on Shane Black’s ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’. Seemingly inspired by that experience, About Last Night is shot in downtown L.A. inside bars, restaurants and buildings that have stood there for decades. He shoots the streets wet to a beautiful (if wasteful - mind your water bill, California!) effect. And he makes the bright lights against the stark darkness of an L.A. night pop, shooting the cast in a dreamy haze evocative of classic Hollywood. It’s a beautiful visual language amongst bawdy jokes, that elevates a so-so story into an underappreciated gem.
- Nick Isaac
Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)
What is there to say about Pulp Fiction that hasn't already been said? One of the most talked about and referenced movies of the 1990s that spawned a couple dozen imitators and catapulted the careers of Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, and director Quentin Tarantino into the stratosphere (as well as making people remember that John Travolta can be a good actor when he wants to be). But one of the most striking features of the vulgar, blood-soaked, non-linear crime film is its use of various L.A. suburbs like Glendale, Pasadena, Burbank, and of course, Hollywood. In portraying the weird underbelly of American life - whether it be a bunch of young guys mistakenly getting caught in a misunderstanding in which they are struck down with great vengeance and furious anger, or seeking refuge from harm in the wrong storefront and almost getting violated. L.A. is very much a character in Pulp Fiction and the best of Tarantino's films to be set there - now here's hoping he can get over making revisionist revenge Westerns and finally do another film set there.