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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A Tall Tale: Taking Woodstock

Taking Woodstock movie poster

 

Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock is based on Elliot Tiber’s memoir Taking Woodstock: A True Story of a Riot, a Concert, and a Life, that purports to be the untold story of how the Woodstock music festival came to Bethel, NY, in August 1969. Tiber claims he was the crucial go-between that introduced the festival’s organizers to Max Yasgur, owner of the farm that became the site of the famous three days of music, peace, love, mud, brown acid, and traffic jams.

Even if only a portion of Elliot’s tall tale is true, it’s incredible that it has not been dramatized before now. In his version of events, an ordinary, meek kid becomes the accidental midwife of one of the biggest cultural events in modern history. Mix in most of the hot-button issues of the time — the hippie vs. square culture clash, gay awakening, anti-semitism, the mafia, and fallout from the Korean and Vietnam Wars — and you end up with what should have been a richly definitive movie dealing with the era.

Demetri Martin and Paul Dano in Taking WoodstockTripping the light fantastic in the magic bus

That Tiber’s account of the festival is vigorously disputed by almost everyone involved (and sober enough to recall events now) is beside the point. The story is a good one, but the film never seems to capture the joy, anxiety, or excitement of the moment. So what if it isn’t true? We already have a supposedly objective documentary on the festival (but more on that below).

The biggest problem is Demetri Martin, who despite his success as a comedian and contributor to The Daily Show, possesses approximately as much star charisma as a plank. To be fair, his character is written to be repressed and buttoned-up, but the kid remains boring even after what ought to have been a transformative number of enlightening experiences, including his first gay kiss, first acid trip, and betrayal by his mother. Emile Hirsch appears in a small role as a psychologically scarred vet, and clearly would have been better in the lead role. Even Elliot’s parents are both more compelling characters than he. His father’s (Henry Goodman) interactions with the burgeoning counterculture awaken him from the virtual coma his life had become, and his mother (Imelda Staunton) is a self-destructive hoarder, which the film links to Holocaust survivor’s guilt.

Demetri Martin and Liev Schreiber in Taking WoodstockThat’s a man, baby!

Lee’s visuals are fairly straightforward, making it rather jarring when split-screen sequences visually allude to Michael Wedleigh’s documentary Woodstock (1970). Taking Woodstock supports Wedleigh’s thesis that the mostly harmless hippies that sought a weekend of peace and music instead found hostile locals and a combative, condescending press. But other moments in Taking Woodstock serve to undercut the original documentary, such as when Wedleigh is seen coaching a trio of nuns to flash the peace sign. If that iconic image was staged, what else might have been false or exaggerated? Taking Woodstock may be a tall tale, but it also makes clear that Wedleigh’s film isn’t necessarily reliable either.

Taking Woodstock ends with organizer Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff) about to mount another free concert featuring the Rolling Stones. The Woodstock festival may have been chaotic, but it was successful insofar that it proved people could gather in massive numbers and celebrate positively and peacefully. Lang is energized by what he achieved, but the mood is not so optimistic for those of us that know how it all turned out. The chaos and murder of the Altamount debacle that marked the end of the Summer of Love would be documented by The Maysles Brothers in Gimme Shelter (read Matthew Dessem’s excellent take on the film at The Criterion Contraption).

Demetri Martin in Taking WoodstockOne of the most famous traffic jams in history

Just as Taking Woodstock never quite takes off, Elliot never actually makes it to the concert. The fact that we never see it, and barely even hear it, is part of the point. Many of the 400,000 attendees probably never got any closer, either. And even those that did may have been too altered to recall much.

Random observations:

  • There are puzzling hints that Lang’s assistant Tisha (Mamie Gummer, Meryl Streep’s daughter) is significant, but her character is ultimately superfluous. The role is not significant enough to match the notable casting.
  • Like contemporaries Michael Winterbottom and Danny Boyle, Ang Lee seems determined to never make the same film twice. Seen in that light, Taking Woodstock is a refreshing break in tone from his grim, thoroughly nonerotic Lust, Caution.
  • Further, it’s also worth noting that Eliot’s homosexual awakening is much more successful and fulfilling than that of the tortured cowboys in Brokeback Mountain.

Official movie site: www.takingwoodstockthemovie.com

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Dennis Hopper’s Colors

Colors movie poster

 

Dennis Hopper’s Colors may be a buddy cop flick on the surface, but it’s hardly typical high-concept Hollywood material. It does have a token overarching plot (involving a mismatched pair of cops tracing the perpetrators of a drive-by shooting), but it’s merely a loose thread to hold the movie together. If neither a character study nor a plot-driven thriller, Colors is a portrait of an issue, a setting, a problem.

A prototype for the HBO series The Wire, Colors is actually a portrait of the deteriorated, hopeless situation in a failed American city lost to gangs and the drug trade. But unlike The Wire, which deeply explores the economics of how and why gangs function as organizations, Colors doesn’t offer much detail on how they operate and what they do. However sensitive and balanced Colors may be, it still takes the point of view of predominantly white law enforcement. As such, it’s easy to see why filmmakers shortly turned to films like Menace II Society (read The Dork Report review) and Boyz N the Hood (read The Dork Report review), which would look at some of the same issues from the other side of the milieu.

Sean Penn in ColorsSean Penn in Colors: “You don’t wanna get laid, man. It leads to kissing and pretty soon you gotta talk to ’em.”

The interesting title most obviously refers to the term for a nation’s flag(tying in with the themes of war and the institution that wage it) or the signature colors of three major warring L.A. gangs: the Bloods (red), Crips (blue), and a Latino gang (white). The real colors that divide these groups are, of course, race. The one sign of equality in late 80s L.A. is that nearly everyone calls each other Holmes.

The narrative is loosely hung on several cliches, most notably the trope of veteran cop saddled with rookie partner. Officer Hodges (Duvall) is bitter at being drafted into the L.A.P.D. C.R.A.S.H. anti-gang program, after a lifetime of service that ought to have qualified him for sensible hours, a safe desk job, and more time with his family. Officer McGavin (Penn) is an aggressive, preening dandy, eager to attack the gang problem with the blunt tool of incarceration.

Robert Duvall in ColorsRobert Duvall in Colors: “you got a problem with the whole fuckin’ world, and I’m in it.”

But it’s not long after the movie sets up these cliches that it begins to knock them down. The ostensibly wizened Hodges makes a critical mistake, setting free a young gangbanger on the assumption that a brush with the law would scare him straight, while simultaneously intending it to be a lesson to the headstrong book ’em-type McGavin. The punk turns out to have been a major player in the shooting. Another cliche short-circuited: McGavin romances a local girl from the barrio (Maria Conchita Alonso), but she turns out to be far from the madonna he imagined. Not only that, she rejects him anyway.

Colors ends on a very down beat, not just the death of a significant character, but what comes after. McGavin is forced into the position of imparting wisdom before he’s earned much himself. The film ends with a long shot held on his face (echoed much later in the final shot of mind Michael Clayton – read The Dork Report review) as he most likely ponders his ineffectiveness.

Of note are early appearances by Don Cheadle and Damon Wayans, the latter featuring in a stand-out surreal sequence in which his character T-Bone is out of his mind on drugs. Herbie Hancock’s score has not dated well, nor has the vintage rap soundtrack, including the angry theme song by Ice-T. The opening credits are set to “One Time One Night” by the local L.A. band Los Lobos.


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Menace II Society

Menace II Society movie poster

 

Let me just come out and say it: I utterly and totally loathed Menace II Society. The Dork Report’s 1/2 star rating is reserved for true cinematic crimes against humanity, movies that I think the world would have been a better place had they not been made (zero stars are for those rare and special cases, beyond the pale, where bad transmutes into good, like the perversely enjoyable Plan 9 From Outer Space – read The Dork Report review). Of course, I’m a relatively privileged white boy from suburbia, so it’s going to be tricky for me to explain my passionately negative reaction to a movie about African Americans trapped in racist, drug-infested Watts, South Central Los Angeles. The cheap way out would be to claim I’m not the target audience, but that itself would be a kind of racist copout.

Menace II Society

The best way to explain how I feel about this movie is to compare it to two of the best works of fiction I’ve ever seen: Do the Right Thing (1989) and The Wire (2002-08). Menace II Society opens with stock footage of 1965 Watts riots, and then fast-forwards to Watts in 1993. It’s a cheap and crass stab at social relevance that only movies like Spike Lee’s masterpiece Do the Right Thing have earned. I don’t know how much factual or biographical truth is in Menace II Society, but everything that follows strikes me as exploitation; which is to say, the worst, most sensationalized depictions of drug culture dramatized to scare the bejeezus out of supposedly civilized cinema goers. Do the Right Thing presented one of the most complex views of racial tension ever seen in the movies, but Menace II Society is a mere lowlights reel of relentless violence and depravity that seemed to me to be racist itself. Caine (Tyrin Turner), O-Dog (Larenze Tate), and Tat (Samuel L. Jackson), not a single character can speak a single sentence without at least three n-words and two f-bombs.

The Wire is one of the only TV series to approach the level of literature, and like Do the Right Thing it counts race among its many deep themes. Many of its characters are also underprivileged African Americans on the wrong side of the law. But not once did I ever sense The Wire was exploitative or sensationalistic in any way. Menace II Society barely deserves to be mentioned in the same paragraph as The Wire, but I did note a very similar scene in both: in the second season of The Wire, Bodie and Shamrock take a rare road trip out of Baltimore and, unable to find any hip-hop on the radio, instead find themselves listening to NPR’s A Prairie Home Companion in baffled silence. Likewise, the best scene in Menace II Society is of an African American family at home on Christmas Eve watching It’s a Wonderful Life, and utterly unable to relate to or derive any pleasure from it.

Menace II Society

Menace II Society (1993, New Line Cinema) is the debut film from twin brothers Albert and Allen Hughes, who would later go on to direct From Hell (2001), and completely miss the point of the source material: Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s graphic novel. In direct contrast to John Singleton’s simply, classically shot Boyz n the Hood (read The Dork Report review), Menace II Society is a slickly polished production (which, I believe, only contributes to its glamorization of the thug gangsta lifestyle). But it’s a clumsy film in other ways, with terrible voiceover narration stupidly telling instead of showing. But it pays off in the end with the realization of the only interesting device of the film: it’s narrated by a dead man.


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