Which Way Is Up: Michael Mann’s Miami Vice

Miami Vice movie poster

 

The simple truth is that I hated Michael Mann’s Miami Vice on first viewing. On a technical level, it was marred by hideously poor sound reproduction — for which I blamed the particular theater I happened to see it in, but a friend of mine had the same complaint about a totally different venue, suggesting something was wrong with the prints themselves. I found the film much improved when watching the unrated director’s cut available on DVD and Blu-ray — not just sporting more audible sound but even improved fluidity in the storytelling. I don’t recall the original theatrical cut well enough to identify what may have been added, altered, extended, or rearranged, so any number of factors could have contributed to a more forgiving reappraisal: approximately five extra minutes of breathing room, better sound, and an original opinion so low there there was no way to go but up.

The film is based on the original television series of the same name that ran between 1984-1989, created by Anthony Yerkovich and produced by Mann. Its premise was famously encapsulated by Mann’s alleged two-word pitch “MTV cops” — a legend that may or may not be true but has the benefit of being right on-the-nose. Kitschy even at the time, Miami Vice drew its stylistic tendencies — and sometimes even its guest stars — from MTV. It’s a world apart from Crime Story, another Mann crime drama and an early experiment with serialized storytelling that wouldn’t really take hold until much later with Twin Peaks and The Sopranos. It ran concurrently with Miami Vice but was cancelled after only two two seasons (1986-87).

Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx in Michael Mann's Miami ViceOK, you win. Your suit is shinier than mine.

Miami Vice the movie, however, is the product of Mann the writer and director as opposed to episodic television producer and showrunner. The film is more of auteur work than the collaborative medium of a television series, and as such begs comparison with his other major films also set in the world of crime and punishment: Manhunter, Thief, Heat, Collateral, and Public Enemies. But whereas most of these presented sympathetic (or at least complex) portraits of criminals, Miami Vice is a more traditional policier firmly on the side of the good guys.

Miami Vice follows the high-stakes exploits of Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Rico Tubbs (Jamie Foxx), two Miami-Dade Police detectives in the war on drugs. The story begins in medias res, plunging the audience into an undercover operation that goes awry, followed by an effort to assist a colleague whose cover was blown while embedded in a Columbian drug running operation. This second operation is just the tip of an iceberg: FBI Agent John Fujima (Ciarán Hinds) reveals that there is a mole in the FBI. Crockett and Tubbs are deputized as federal agents for purposes of continuing the investigation.

Like typical Mann protagonists, the detectives’ jobs are the sole focus of their lives. In the DVD bonus features, a real undercover operative states how disconcerting it is to lead another life as a high roller, wearing the finest clothes and driving the best cars, but return home off duty to his family in a crappy used car. It would have been nice to see what kind of lives Crockett and Tubbs lead off duty, if any, and learn a little of what life is really like for undercover cops. Instead, we watch the entire onscreen team live, eat, and sleep together in a large unfurnished house, much like master thief Neil McCauley’s (Robert De Niro) spartan abode in Heat.

Colin Farrell and Gong Li in Michael Mann's Miami ViceCrockett travels in style.

Both men become professionally compromised by their relationships with women, escalating to the point where their lives are threatened by their emotional needs. Neither looks outside their narrow work sphere for love: Tubbs is romantically involved with a colleague, and Crockett becomes mixed up with gorgeous money laundress Isabella (Gong Li). She’s dispassionate and inscrutable when we see her at work, but reveals worlds of emotion behind her eyes when alone with Crockett. Frankly, Gong Li is a little hard to understand, her character being a Chinese immigrant to Havana, requiring her to speak two languages in a film already rife with a plethora of blended accents. Justly wary of his partner’s infatuation, Tubbs warns him, “There’s undercover and then there’s which way is up.” Ignoring his partner’s advice, Crockett abets her escape from the federal sting operation, an act the movie judges as morally acceptable because he loves her.

Returning players from the Mann repertory include Domenick Lombardozzi (from Public Enemies) and Barry Shabaka Henley (the ill-fated jazz club owner in Collateral, who also appears as a parole agent in Mann’s latest TV project Luck). New additions include Eddie Marsan, perhaps one of the most versatile actors in the world, as a government informant with a thoroughly convincing Southern twang, and John Ortiz (also a lead in Luck, and don’t miss him opposite Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Ryan in Jack Goes Boating). His villainous character here at first seems on a par with Javier Bardem’s powerful and threatening turn in Collateral, more savvy and perceptive even than his boss Arcangel de Jesus Montoya (Luis Tosar). But he ultimately proves pathetic and weaselly — the audience’s ability to take him seriously not helped by a caricatured accent just this side of Speedy Gonzales.

Mann took the opportunity to continue his experiments with digital cinematography begun in Collateral, and many of the locations were actual. Nevertheless, the production was enormously expensive for a movie without significant CGI special effects, even though it was ultimately profitable worldwide. A significant chunk of the expense is likely attributable to Mann’s customarily deep research in the service of verisimilitude, right down to unusual speedboats and implausibly exotic (but real) types of weapons.

Gong Li and Colin Farrell in Michael Mann's Miami ViceCrockett (Colin Farrell) leans in to better understand Isabella’s (Gong Li) accent

In “Knives Out for Michael Mann”, Kim Masters dishes the latest dirt on Mann, running a parade of anonymous, damning onset anecdotes. In particular, he was supposedly inconsiderate of the safety of the cast and crew during a shoot already made physically dangerous by everything from Hurricane Katrina to locations in gang-controlled territory. Mann may not be solely to blame, however, for Slate fingers actor Jamie Foxx for demanding higher billing and a raise after winning the Best Actor Oscar for the Ray Charles biopic Ray. He also allegedly demanded a last-minute rewrite that compromised the ending, and refused to fly to location shoots. The latter, at least, may be excusable — for The Daily Beast attributes his reasonable-sounding objection to an on-set actual shooting incident.

The score is rather disappointing for a Mann film, especially compared to the great Dead Can Dance neo-medieval soundscapes for The Insider, the Kronos Quartet dissonance in Heat, and James Newton Howard’s Mogwai-inspired post-rock score for Collateral. Jan Hammer’s iconic theme for the TV series is inexplicably absent, but there is a truly awful cover by the band Nonpoint of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight”, a signature song of the original show.

Another carryover from the province of the original series is the unfortunate fashion victims. The 21st century Crockett and Tubbs are seemingly locked in competition to see who owns the shiniest suit or the silliest hairstyle (Crockett rocks a mullet and Tubbs a precision-chiselled hairline). One is seen to drive a rocket-propelled european sportscar, which is apparently not meant to be a humorous allusion to the Adam West’s 1960s Batmobile.

The film ends with a mundane final shot, very uncharacteristic for the director that ended Thief and Heat with magnificent tableaus. Crockett enters a hospital, cut to credits. I get the point: he believes love is impossible for a man in his position — he effectively imprisons his girlfriend in another kind of deep cover, all in favor of him going back to work, at his partner’s side as they check up on an injured colleague. It’s true to character, and thematically significant, but visually anticlimactic and not what we pay for when we go to see a film from such a famously exacting and stylistic filmmaker.


Official movie site: www.miamivice.com

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Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus movie poster

 

Terry Gilliam is burdened with a number of unfair reputations. First, as a visual stylist more than a storyteller or director of actors — the latter, at least, obviously refuted by the fact that many high-profile stars will repeatedly work with him for pennies. He’s also known as an unpredictable hellion and spendthrift, which are, from the point of view of those that hold the pursestrings, the two least desirable characteristics in a director. He may in fact be concerned more with the integrity of the work than with the business angle, as any artist should be, but he is no wastrel. In fact, all but one of his completed movies came in on time and under budget. A better way to describe him would be as the most unlucky person in the movie business.

After the multiple calamities and misfortunes (that even an atheist might characterize as acts of god) that befell The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Gilliam made The Brothers Grimm as a commercial concession. Despite it still bearing his unmistakable imprimatur, it remains the sole Gilliam film I actively dislike. One good thing to come of it, however, was a genuine friendship with its star Heath Ledger. Interested in filmmaking himself, Ledger stuck around on the set of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus even when not needed on camera, serving as Gilliam’ apprentice and pitching in whenever possible.

Heath Ledger in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus“Can you put a price on your dreams?”

Gilliam’s fabled bad luck first reared when he was hit by a bus and cracked a vertebra, as reported in Wired. Ledger died during production, followed by producer William Vince before post-production could begin. If one untimely death could possibly be said to be any more of a shame than another, Ledger’s accidental overdose at the age of 28 might be truly unfair. He was riding the crest of a wave of appreciation for his performances in Brokeback Mountain and Batman: The Dark Knight, and had just begun to stretch his muscles as a director with music videos for Ben Harper and Modest Mouse.

The production was very nearly halted, but Gilliam realized it could be salvaged and re-conceived if Ledger’s part were partially recast with Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell. Gilliam stuck to one simple and absolute criteria: all three actors must be personal friends of Ledger, leading him to reportedly turn down an overture by none less than Tom Cruise on the basis that he hadn’t known Ledger. Depp and Law actually do quite resemble Ledger onscreen, at least with the aid of eyeliner and costuming. However, Farrell most captures Ledger’s physical presence and mannerisms. Charmingly, the movie is credited not to Gilliam but to “A film from Heath Ledger and friends.”

Lily Cole in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus“Voila!”

The eerie synchronicity between Ledger’s death and the film’s themes of mortality are, remarkably, coincidental. Gilliam co-wrote the script with Charles McKeown (also of Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, which this movie most closely resembles). According to Collider, the story is based on Gilliam’s own feelings of artistic frustration, particularly after the reception of his controversial film Tideland, which many found not just difficult but even offensive.

As its title makes plain, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is set literally in a world of imagination, a place we have visited before in nearly every single Gilliam film. Most famously, Brazil riffs on James Thurber’s 1939 short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” The few exceptions include Jabberwocky and The Brothers Grimm, in which fairy tales exist matter of factly in the real world. In 12 Monkeys, it remains ambiguous if James Cole’s (Bruce Willis) future (his present) or the present (his past) might be real or delusions.

Tom Waits in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus“He’s come to collect.”

It would be a huge mistake to expect any Terry Gilliam film to make total logical sense. Such pedestrian expectations would weigh down an artist we love for his unique, vivid flights of fancy. But perhaps even the wildest Gilliam fancy ought to be internally consistent to a degree. If something doesn’t make sense, is it a tantalizing conundrum left open for the viewer to mull over, or is it evidence of sloppiness? The central question left unanswered for me has to do with the core conceit of the film itself: people are drawn into the mind of Dr. Parnassus through his magical mirror. In his mindscape, they must choose between entering a building maintained by the Devil (Tom Waits), or… what, exactly? Of those few that reject the Devil, we see their blissful, unencumbered state upon leaving Dr. Parnassus’ mind. What exactly happens to them that makes them happy? Also, there’s the side effect of them shedding their possessions. They may have been freed of their own earthly materialism, but that doesn’t stop Parnassus from conveniently enriching his own troupe’s coffers, giving the whole process an air of a scammy confidence game instead of spiritual awakening. Reflecting the theme of insincerity is the cornball tune “We Are the Children of the World” which appears as a ringtone in the film, and at the end of the closing credits.

The apparent protagonist turns out to be an unredeemable villain, unlike virtually all of Gilliam’s previous heroes, in particular Kevin in Time Bandits, Jack Lucas in The Fisher King, Sam Lowry in Brazil, James Cole in 12 Monkeys, and Jeliza-Rose in Tideland. Which leaves us with Dr. Parnassus, who ends up a little bit like Parry (Robin Williams) as we meet him at the beginning of The Fisher King: homeless and seemingly permanently locked in a position of want. Both are hobos, rendered apart and invisible from a world of beauty and wealth. Parnassus’ longings are embodied by the beautiful Valentina (Lily Cole), whom may or may not be his daughter, now seen ensconced in an enviously blissful nuclear family. Parnassus remains forever tempted by the Devil.


Official movie site: www.doctorparnassus.com

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Pride and Glory

Pride and Glory movie poster

 

Pride and Glory was one of the last New Line Cinema productions made while still a semi-autonomous company, before being eviscerated by parent company Warner Bros. in 2008. For the morbidly curious, Vanity Fair recently related the sad tale in its latest Hollywood issue. Disclaimer: I worked for New Line Cinema through its end times, but had absolutely nothing to do with actually making or marketing its movies, and nobody there cared what rank-and-file employees thought about the artistic merit of their product anyway.

For still undisclosed reasons, Pride and Glory was completed in 2006, but sat on the shelf for almost two years. Director Gavin O’Connor (Tumbleweeds) publicly blamed New Line (and co-head Bob Shaye in particular) for burying his movie. Stars Edward Norton and Colin Farrel also spoke out about it in the press, clearly disappointed but yet more understanding (perhaps these seasoned actors were more jaded, and unsurprised by studio machinations). New Line countered that the sliding release date was intended to avoid the lead actors’ competing projects from different studios. It was eventually scheduled for March 2008, but not actually released until late 2008.

Colin Farrel and Ed Norton in Pride and GloryColin’s a bent copper

This attention helped it become a minor cause célèbre among online movie aficionados that couldn’t resist the bait: a scandalous tale of a suppressed masterpiece. But the sad truth is that Pride and Glory is a god-awful, depressing, pointless mess of a movie. Actually, that’s not fair; it’s not poorly made from a technical standpoint. Not to go out of my way to defend the studio, but it now seems likely there was no actual conspiracy to bury a misunderstood masterpiece. Perhaps New Line simply couldn’t slot the film into its slate, figure out how to market it, or was forced to shunt some projects aside during the stress of the imminent destruction of the entire company. Or maybe even, most unlikely of all, New Line had the sense to realize Pride and Glory just wasn’t a very good movie.

Also contributing to the aura of controversy was the bungled filming of a police funeral scene at the actual ceremony for New York City officer Eric Hernandez, accidentally killed by friendly fire in 2006. The production reportedly promised the family they would be respectful and stay out of their way, but reneged and clumsily intruded on the sensitive affair. Having seen the completed scene, I don’t see any reason why it couldn’t have been effectively staged with a complement of extras in full dress uniform.

Pride and Glory was written by brothers Gavin and Gregory O’Connor. As the sons of a police officer, they had unusual access to the New York Police Department. If their film is supposed to be a tribute to honest cops, its corruption plot must feel like a slap in the face. The movie’s fictional corrupt cops are wholly, utterly evil, with no gradations of character or motivation. Jimmy Egan (Farrel) and a clutch of fellow cops have been skimming money off drug busts for years, and have graduated to murder and selling drugs themselves. Egan’s brother-in-law Ray Tierney (Norton) finds himself in a position where he could turn Egan in. Complicating matters, Tierney’s pop Francis Sr. (John Voight) and brother Francis Jr. (Noah Emmerich, brother to New Line executive Toby Emmerich, and typecast as a cop after his role in Little Children) are also in the force. Francis Jr. also knows about the corruption, but doesn’t have the courage to man up. If Ray does the right thing, it will not only tear up his family but the New York Police Department itself. But events conspire such that the good guys don’t have to act; three crooked cops self-destruct of their own accord, and the story reveals itself to the press. Jimmy and Ray are freed to settle their personal grievances as two stereotypical movie Irish cops ought: fisticuffs in a pub.

John Voight in Pride and GloryCheese it, it’s the fuzz!

I suspect O’Connor had pretensions to making another L.A. Confidential, but his result doesn’t measure up to the standards of such a superior film noir. Note the superficial resemblances: police corruption, drugs, family pride. Pride and Glory’s plot only seems complex, but is actually stupid-simple. Exposition scenes basically lay out the plot quite early, draining any sense of mystery or suspense. The dialogue is peppered with a torrent of names that are challenging for the audience to connect with faces, a technique that provides only a superficial complexity to a simple plot.

The tone is absurdly grim and totally humorless, and devoid of any human emotion beyond Ray’s grim sense of duty. The classic film noir element most notably lacking in this boy’s club production is any hint of women or sex. What few women there are in the cast barely figure into the plot. The most significant female character is cancer-stricken Abby (Jennifer Ehle), whose sole purpose in the plot seems to be to humanize husband Francis Jr. Pride and Glory utterly lacks the sense of verisimilitude of the television series The Wire, similarly set in the worlds of inner city drug and police cultures. Now is as good a time as any to state that The Dork Report does not apologize for taking advantage of any opportunity whatsoever to evangelize The Wire.

The setting is a version of New York City that may or may not actually exist. In fact, there’s an unusual disclaimer before the end credits stating its characters and events are totally fictional. Obviously, if there was an actual case of such massive corruption in the NYPD, we’d have heard about it. After the credits, there’s yet another disclaimer I’ve never seen before, stating that no one connected with the production took any money to promote the use of tobacco products. This Dork Reporter don’t smoke, and never has, but is offended by the notion that movies are influential in this way. Granted, movies are a powerful artform, and can affect people’s hearts and minds. The ills of society are real problems that require complex solutions, but censoring movies is not one of them. It’s a cheap and easy way for righteous fools to believe they are combating a problem. Where’s the corresponding worry that little kids will watch this movie and be inspired to grow up to be corrupt cops?


Official movie site: www.prideandglorymovie.com

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Miami Vice (2006)

Miami Vice movie poster

 

Miami Vice is decidedly slight on character and depth, which is not surprising considering the source material. It is quite so, however, considering writer/director Michael Mann‘s track record once leaving the iconic 80s tv show behind.

The deep characterization in all his crime dramas ranging from Thief through Collateral elevate them above the ultrastylized and hyperviolent genre films they would have been otherwise. Even the most minor characters in Heat have backstories and substance. Thief and Heat each revolves around a long coffeehouse conversation; how many genre films slow down long enough for the characters to talk to each other? And it also has to be said of Collateral that Mann somehow drew out of the increasingly looney Tom Cruise an actual performance, probably one of his last before he heads further down Michael Jackson lane to crazy town.

But Miami Vice is disappointingly empty, with an engagingly twisty-turny plot and typically brilliant editing and cinematography. But when there is no investment in the characters, who cares when they start shooting each other in the face?

Alexander

Alexander movie poster

 

Ugh. I should have listened to the myriad critics and friends who warned me off this one… it is indeed quite bad. Everything you’ve heard is true: impossibly long, unintelligibly edited (can anyone explain to me Alexander’s supposedly brilliant scheme in the first battle? Running away and coming back will allow greater access to strike the enemy king exactly how?), and schizophrenic with regards to its sexual politics. So Alexander was bisexual, fine. But in this day and age, doing anything to avoid showing an onscreen kiss just calls attention to itself. Two pretty men gazing at each other and saying things like “By Zeus’ beard, you are indeed a great man” is just comical.

And most amusingly: if accents are to be judged, Angelina Jolie’s character hails from Transylvania, and Alexander and his father came to Greece by way of down the pub. In fact, the kid who plays the young Alexander sounds more Irish than Colin Farrel himself!

I rented the director’s cut, which bucks the trend in actually being shorter than the theatrical version (the only other director I know of to do this is Stanley Kubrick, who would often continue to abridge films even during release). At 3 hours, 55 minutes, I am quite glad I didn’t decide to go with the theatrical version.

What was good about it? Angelina Jolie is always a pleasure to watch – an old-school movie star in the sense that her presence and beauty are so overpowering that she might as well be from another planet. I’ve always thought Val Kilmer was a fine actor (especially in the underrated Spartan). And in a suprisingly plain-looking movie for Stone, it’s a great relief when he finally cuts loose in the surreal, literally blood-soaked sequence of Alexander’s near-fatal wounding in India.