A Clique of Cranks: Room 237

Room 237 is not about The Shining. It is about those lost in its labyrinth.

For better or for worse, Stanley Kubrick is one of the most potent gateway drugs for young cinephiles, and for many the early obsession proves lifelong. The addictive nature of his films is partly due to their own air of grandeur and carefully-crafted perfection, but the the popular perception of Kubrick as a total mastermind sweating every single detail of his films is belied by some accounts, such the surprisingly seat-of-his-pants making of 2001: A Space Odyssey. And the weight of reputation and self-seriousness often disguises the satire and sometimes even silly wit. Personally, I was exposed to 2001: A Space Odyssey as a child, and it wasn’t until years later that I realized how much of it was intentionally funny.

Perhaps even moreso than 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining is treated as a kind of holy book by a clique of cranks. And like all holy books, The Shining is big, deep, and rich enough to support almost any interpretation one might bring to it. If one looks hard and long enough for something, one will find it.

These Shining superfans evince little distinction between conscious authorial intent vs. after-the-fact critical deconstruction by outside observers. What is for most movie buffs a fun parlor game of spotting continuity errors is for them a deadly serious matter of asking what it all meeeeaannnns, man. In particular, the symbolism of the Overlook Hotel’s garden labyrinth tempts an examination of its indoor floorplan, which is indeed full of evident inconsistencies. But rather than consider the challenges of building a movie set, it’s more fun to read it as an exploration into the psychogeography of madness.

Some of the obsessives make interesting observations, but often undercut themselves. For instance: one egomaniac believes he has “solved” the film as Kubrick’s coded confession that he was involved in faking the Apollo moon landing footage. He interprets the hotel key lettering “ROOM No.” to be an anagram for “MOON”. He forgets “MORON”.

Radiohead: Meeting People is Easy…

…but being invited to your own party is hard.

I remember liking Grant Gee’s Radiohead documentary Meeting People is Easy when I first saw it in the late nineties, but now it just looks like a feature-length expose of how music journos are twits that ruin everything.

Snausage Fest: Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs

Rather astonished to find Isle of Dogs defeat my expectations and become one of my least favorite Wes Andersons, if not the least.

Anderson is one of my absolute favorite filmmakers (I know, I know, join the club), but like a lot of my faves, I have significant reservations. It’s no great insight to point out that all of his films are male-centric, all with male protagonists, all with predominantly male casts, and all featuring at best one primary female supporting character.

He’s hardly unique in this respect, so it’s unfair to single him out when there are far more egregious examples (like, for example, almost every director ever). But it feels especially overt in the context of a fantasy fable, where anything goes. Why on earth did this have to be such a Snausage fest?

With a little effort, I count maybe five speaking female characters from memory. Of those, two are — sorry for this, but quite literally — bitches bred to be pretty or bear litters. Interpreter Nelson may share narration duties, but she merely translates the words of other male characters. Yoko-ono is practically mute. That leaves Tracy — about whom I barely know where to begin. At a time when pop culture is calling for greater representation of asian characters in film, the best I can say about her is thank goodness she wasn’t a Japanese character voiced by post-Ghost-in-the-Shell Scarlett Johansson.

Sorry to go on and on about the lack of female representation in an animated dog movie, but I just cannot overlook here what I could previously accept as a given with Anderson. It was worth it for his singular visual style and quirks, and he would occasional feature complex female characters like Margot, Suzy, and Miss Cross amidst all the boys. In Rushmore, Miss Cross is the love object of a precocious but immature boy emulating his notions of adulthood, and his inappropriate crush is part of the point. She is thankfully written and acted as far more than a token, but there’s no equivalently interesting female character in Isle of Dogs, and what’s the excuse? Why does the little pilot have to be boy? Why does the entire pack of dogs have to be male? It’s just so frustrating.

I’m also deducting points for another of my common movie complaints: when one of the most visually-oriented mediums that humanity has ever created — animation — is misapplied to primarily verbal works. The worst example of this in my mind is Richard Linklater’s Waking Life, throughout most of which I could not fathom why the painstaking process of animation was applied to stationary talking heads. Although the animation craft on display in Isle of Dogs is often extraordinarily wonderful, the screenplay is so verbose and overwritten that it often must halt to allow for a few pages of dialogue. Stop motion becomes stopped motion.

Apart Hate: District 9

Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 is an old story told many times in fiction and history: an undesirable group intrudes upon the space and resources of privileged power possessors. This story never ends well. District 9’s highly allegorical culture clash corresponds to great many groups that have suffered in throughout history, many sadly ongoing: refugees, minorities, Roma, Jews, or immigrants. But hey, this time it’s aliens!

Peter Jackson produced writer/director Blomkamp’s feature length version of his short film “Alive in Joburg”. The concept is closely related to Graham Baker’s 1988 sci-fi cop buddy picture Alien Nation (developed by Kenneth Johnson for a TV series the following year), in which a fully-packed slave ship is suddenly abandoned on Earth. The slaves may have been freed, but stranded in a hostile, crowded alien world with no room for them, even if the natives didn’t find them distasteful. Alien Nation found its drama in the friction on both sides as the freed slaves are absorbed into human society in a variety of ways.

District 9 is far more vague about its aliens’ nature and more cynical about the possibility of their integration. The ship they arrived in may not even have belonged to them, otherwise they would presumably have been more inclined to attempt to repair it or at least live aboard. Were they an exploited labor force, or what we would call slaves? If so, what happened to their captors? The trailer includes at least one scene not included in the finished film, in which an alien interrogated by human police implies that they are preventing them from repairing their ship, when all they want to do is go home. This simple sentiment is never expressed by any alien character in the movie. In fact, more of them seem content to simply live in squalor. Why can’t or won’t they simply tell us who they are or what they want?

District 9 is comprised of an awkwardly stitched together melange of genres, less seamlessly than how Alien Nation merged the buddy cop drama with science fiction. For most of its running time, District 9 works as a fauxmentary made of ostensibly found footage. The fauxmentary has long been a format for farce (q.v. Zelig and This is Spinal Tap), but in later years The Blair Witch Project, Diary of the Dead (read The Dork Report review), and Cloverfield (read The Dork Report review) all found ways to effectively employ the style for horror, drama, and science fiction. The ongoing wave of reality television and the run-and-gun handheld style in vogue since Paul Greengrass’ kinetic The Bourne Supremacy are no doubt contributing to the trend of including the “camera” as, essentially, a character in the film.

The fauxmentary pretense is upheld for quite a while, until it suddenly shifts to a privileged point of view for a scene in which three alien characters speaking in confidence, without the virtual “camera” present. This shift is jarring, as we’ve previously witnessed everything from the point of view of the absent protagonist. It signals the beginning of a more traditional narrative, albeit one still visualized with the same aesthetic. It’s as if Blomkamp stuck to a first-person point of view until it became inconvenient, so simply shifted to third-person while preserving the same visual aesthetic.

District 9
“When dealing with aliens, try to be polite, but firm. And always remember that a smile is cheaper than a bullet.”

If the audience didn’t already contract whiplash, District 9 then dips into the body horror genre as Wikus (Sharlto Copley) undergoes a metamorphosis a la David Cronenberg’s The Fly. Even this doesn’t hold Blomkamp’s attention, and the film about-faces once again, this time into a standard-issue sci-fi action flick like Aliens (with a dash of Black Hawk Down). For its grand finale, it suddenly crashes back into fauxmentary.

The shifting genres and points of view mirror Wikus’ character arc. Initially a basically sympathetic company man, he turns villainous in our eyes when he displays vicious speciesism by destroying an alien hatchery with undisguised glee. His cosmic punishment is for his body to painfully mutate into that which he hates and fears the most (again, an archetypal Cronenebergian theme), after which he comes around to being sympathetic again. The ending is very effective in reminding us how far Wikus has transformed, body and mind, since we first met him.

District 9 is riddled with a number of irritatingly illogical elements, which are unclear if meant to be mysteries for the audience to ponder or if just outright plot holes or implausibilities. Most refugee situations in human history involve oppressed people with no political or military power. These aliens possess ferociously powerful weapons, but don’t use them to fight for better conditions or more food and resources. If they are so technologically advanced, why do they not also have some kind of functional societal order, as opposed to the self-defeating chaotic shanty town they’ve constructed for themselves? Perhaps the technology belonged to their mysterious and unseen captors, or maybe their ill-behavior is explained by the breakdown of order the occurs in any kind of refugee scenario. More questions: How can one little alien child, born on earth, have the know-how to reactivate the mothership? Why did it take 20 years for any of them to harvest the necessary materials from their own scrap? Surely more than two adult aliens could organize themselves to better harvest their own waste.

It would normally be reductive to search for a “moral of the story” from even the simplest film — the kind of assignment given to an elementary school reading comprehension essay. But since District 9 is clearly making an obvious point about racism and xenophobia, it has to be said that it shoots itself in the foot with its extremely problematic depiction of Nigerians as gangsters and cannibals. Granted, the Nigerian characters don’t come off that much better than the white South Africans we see conducting cruel genetic research on both humans and aliens.

Setting the film in South Africa was perhaps the least subtle way possible to present any kind of science fiction allegory for racism and xenophobia — at least since Star Trek: Enterprise dressed reptilian Xindi villains in Nazi uniforms in 2004 (just in case the slower members of the audience didn’t pick up on the unsubtle pun in the species’ name). It’s perhaps more comfortable to think that these types of situations have occurred in isolated places throughout history: in Nazi Germany, Rwanda, or Armenia. The alien refugee camps are of course most directly analogous to South Africa under Apartheid — the title itself alluding to the forcible eviction of District Six in Cape Town to Cape Flats in 1966. By contrast, Alien Nation made the more profound point that the same thing could happen anywhere.

Relentless Withholding: Michael Mann’s Public Enemies

Khoi Vinh rightly observes in Minimalism, Michael Mann and Miami Vice that “Mann has produced a taut, stylistic and often brutally impersonal filmography that seems most interested in the concept of work” (via Daring Fireball). I wholly understand and laud the aim of a minimalist, “relentlessly withholding” narrative, but I don’t believe it’s ignorant or populist to demand more. Mann has proved again and again to be a master at managing both character development and cold hard plot, particularly in his masterpiece Heat. So to my eyes, Public Enemies marks a regression. The danger in perpetuating multi-million dollar movies without an interest in human beings is entire multiplexes full of soulless special effects showcases like Transformers. Vinh goes on to appreciate Mann’s construction of the film as a form of design, not least because Mann commissioned Neville Brody to design a typeface New Deal, and the whole article is a must read.

The curse of avidly following any particular artist is that one is set up for disproportionate disappointment whenever their latest work doesn’t measure up to their very best. Mann is one of my own personal favorite filmmakers, and for the record, I would cite Thief, Heat, The Insider, and Collateral as his best and some of my favorite movies overall. As for the rest: Manhunter suffers from the usual criticisms levied against Mann (dated, stylized, and overserious). The Last of the Mohicans is overrated (famous mostly for its catchy score and capturing Daniel Day Lewis on film at his most hunky). Ali was a relatively conventional biopic. And finally, I was downright shocked by how garish, empty, and, well, just how bad Miami Vice was (on first viewing, at least).

Johnny Depp as John Dillinger
Johnny Depp as John Dillinger: “We’re having too good a time today. We ain’t thinking about tomorrow.”

Atypically for the genre, all three of Mann’s biopics are focused on a limited timeframe. The Insider, Ali, and Public Enemies all examine famous figures as adults, during the most active and famous portions of their lives. Public Enemies can’t help but be hamstrung by the rules of nonfiction, which is by definition less dramatically interesting than fiction. Fiction is carefully crafted by an author, and nonfiction is messy serious of events that won’t slot into Aristotle’s Poetics, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, or Robert McKee’s screenwriting formulae that we as a culture find cathartic in art almost by detault. Ali is also a casualty of this equation; it’s a biography, not a narrative. That doesn’t explain the brilliance of The Insider, which I consider a triumph. Perhaps it’s because its subject Jeffrey Wigand is not in the same league of fame as Muhammad Ali or John Dillinger, allowing the audience to discover more than they may already know. I would argue that The Insider is actually about something bigger than the life story of one man; it questions whether integrity, purity, and honesty have a place in a modern world run by corporations.

Before I enumerate my complaints about Public Enemies, it must be said that it’s wholly engrossing. Mann’s customarily deep research results in a characteristically high level of verisimilitude throughout. Many sequences were shot in the actual historic locations, including a raid on a safe house at Little Bohemia Lodge in Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin, a jailbreak from Lake County jail in Crown Point, Indiana, and Dillinger’s death at the Biograph Theater in Chicago. The action is visceral and the suspense is nail-biting, especially a sequence in which John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) brazenly strolls through the Special Crimes Unit offices the day before he is to die. One might assume this astonishing event to be a fabrication for dramatic purposes, but Roger Ebert says it’s “based on fact”).

Any follower of Mann’s work will be unsurprised to see that Public Enemies is visually beautiful. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti previously shot Manhunter, Last of the Mohicans, Heat, and The Insider on film — how quaint! — but here turns to digital video, with which Mann and Dion Beebe experimented on Collateral and Miami Vice. The scenes set in a dimly-lit F.B.I. telephone surveillance office look particularly striking on digital video. Stanley Kubrick sought natural light so dearly that he famously helped develop special lenses capable of shooting by candlelight for Barry Lyndon, so one suspects he would have loved the technology now available.

Terrifying, petrifying gunfights have been a trademark of Mann’s since his earliest feature The Keep. He has perfected it by Public Enemies, in which the tight choreography and extreme violence is matched only by the concussive sound design. These sequences hark back to the innovative urban firefight in Heat, when to the filmmakers’ happy surprise, the actual production sound proved more earsplitting than was possible with post-production foley effects. When I saw Public Enemies in the theater, the first reel was marred by terrible sound (an improvement over my first viewing of Miami Vice, which was almost inaudible throughout). Once resolved, the volume was loud enough to almost physically feel the force of bullets splintering walls, tree trunks, and background performers. Mann used to reserve his epic gun battles for climaxes, such as when Frank (James Caan) raids the mobster’s house in Thief, and Graham (William Peterson) single-handedly attacks The Tooth Fairy’s (Tom Noonan) lair in Manhunter. The shootouts grew to massive scale and epic lengths in the later films, like the unnerving nightclub raid in Collateral, and especially the cataclysmic downtown LA shootout that occurs roughly in the middle of Heat, which the film remorselessly builds towards and then thoroughly explores the ramifications.

Johnny Depp and Marion Cotillard in Public Enemies
Johnny Depp and Marion Cotillard in Public Enemies: “I was raised on a farm in Moooresville, Indiana. My mama ran out on us when I was three, my daddy beat the hell out of me cause he didn’t know no better way to raise me. I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, whiskey, and you… what else you need to know?”

In contrast, much of Public Enemies is a long, sustained chase — a structural conceit Mann seems to have been embracing ever since Collateral. As Fernando F. Croce observed on The Auteurs, “Mann has gradually shifted from an image-based artist to a movement-based artist. Make that a sensation-based artist” … “Mann’s characters are dreamers posing as tough guys.” Mann punctuates the constant forward motion of the plot with action set pieces including at least two jail breaks, several bank robberies, and a chaotic raid on a safe house. Both jail breaks are clever, in which the audacious Dillinger largely exercises brains over brawn, and designs each at least partly to humiliate the lawmen. In the first, Dillinger gets himself deliberately locked up in order to bust his associates out. In the second, they make their getaway in the sheriff’s own car.

Dillinger died in 1934, marking the twilight of the classic gangster era in more ways than one. His activities instigated the creation of the F.B.I. and the passing of laws that inhibited criminal enterprise, making him very unpopular with the organized crime families that were happily operating with relative freedom before he started showboating and stirring things up. His criminal career coincided squarely with the Great Depression era. Mann refrains from showing the stereotypical Hoovertowns or desiccated farmsteads directly, but the largely unspoken economic strife hangs over everyone nevertheless. One of the reasons Dillinger became such a folk hero is that he carefully cultivated a Robin Hood persona by very deliberately taking care not to rob individuals, but to steal from banks and, by proxy, the vilified federal government.

Contemporary media hype made Dillinger a celebrity, and ultimately one of the last romanticized criminals to be able to hide out in public. Mann depicts this idolization subtly. For instance, when the gang refreshes themselves at a farmhouse after breaking out of jail, the woman of the house quietly begs Dillinger to “take me with you.” Note she specifies “me,” despite having children in tow. Most people still know his name today, despite him lacking a memorable nickname like his peers Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson. Incidentally, Baby Face portrayed in Public Enemies by actor Stephen Graham as dangerously unhinged and murderous. He has the criminal mind, but unlike Dillinger lacks the discipline to make it work for him. The dynamic is similar that that of Neil vs. his wayward henchman Waingrow in Heat. Dillinger can’t do what he does alone, but any association with a man like Baby Face courts disaster.

In Knives Out for Michael Mann, Kim Masters dishes the latest dirt on Mann (via In Contention). Anonymous gossip has him as one of the most difficult and even irresponsible directors working today, and studios may no longer wish to front his high price tag for movies that aren’t profitable. I usually protest when I hear studio executives complaining about “difficult” filmmakers — of course filmmakers are difficult — they’re the artists and studio executives are businesspeople. Without difficult artists, the accountants and MBAs that run the movie industry would have no “product” to sell. I usually dismiss the comments of executives that get paid more than the artists they supposedly enable to express themselves. But if the rumors about Mann are true, he’s more than just difficult. In the case of Miami Vice, he reportedly disregarded the safety of his crews by filming in the Gulf Coast as Hurricane Katrina bore down — followed by an actual gun fight on the set. Conditions were so bad on the set of Public Enemies that Depp reportedly stopped speaking with Mann.

Marion Cotillard in Public Enemies
Marion Cotillard as Billie: “They’re looking at me because they’re not used to having a girl in their restaurant in a $3 dress.”

According to Scott Shoger’s Hollywood Goes Gangster, Dillinger was a movie buff, and was even semi-seriously planning a movie about himself not long before his death (an intriguing fact we don’t see in Public Enemies). The last movie he saw was Manhattan Melodrama, for which Clark Gable he won an Oscar. Being Dillinger’s last movie ticket gave the film an undeniable marketing boost. Mann shows Dillinger in a state of reverie as he watches key excerpts that had some personal relevance to how he saw himself. Shoger also states post-Hays Code Hollywood had an unwritten agreement to not produce explicit biopics of actual gangsters, lest they contribute to their celebrity and glorify the criminal lifestyle. This self-censorship more or less held until Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde (1967). As such, only a few movies have told John Dillinger’s story, including The FBI Story (1959, with Jimmy Stewart), The Lady in Red (1979), and at least two simply called Dillinger (1973 and 1991).

In thinking about Public Enemies, I can’t help but keep going back to Thief and Heat, and it doesn’t survive the comparison. Maybe the real John Dillinger just isn’t as interesting as two of Mann’s previous fictional thieves (or in Mann’s parlance, “guys that pull down scores”): Neil (Robert De Niro) in Heat and Frank (James Caan) in Thief. Public Enemies is all surface, without the rich characterization of Thief and Heat. Public Enemies left me grasping at the tiniest of fragments in search of depth or subtext: a little look by an actor, a telling line of dialogue, anything. But there isn’t much there. Roger Ebert appreciates the refreshing lack of backstory conventional in both the biopic and gangster genres. I agree with him in principle, but would like to point out that neither Thief nor Heat features backstory — both flesh out its characters with what you might call “now-story.”

While Public Enemies often feels tragically lacking in dramatic interest, virtually every single character in Heat has a backstory, even the getaway driver Donald (Dennis Haysbert) that dies before the car goes one block. Here, we don’t learn anything about anybody. Aside from Dillinger himself, the one character we probably needed to learn the most about is Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). Purvis is a cold fish outwardly, such as when we dispassionately guns down Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum) after giving him one last chance to surrender. We can infer that he’s a cold, steely G-Man with a particular expertise in sharpshooting. Bale’s performance conveys sadness and guilt over what he’s doing — the questionable morality of defeating gangsters with torture and often even outright summary execution. Heat’s cops and robbers are both fascinating, but who cares about Purvis’ safety, or if he achieves his aims? The only scene in which Bale and Depp share the screen marks one of the few sparks of life in the entire movie, but it’s frustratingly brief and unfortunately visualized through the old cliché of characters speaking through bars. The old Mann would have turned it into a several minute long conversation, a centerpiece of the film.

Another frustrating cypher is the man Purvis drafts as as controversial expert on Dillinger. Charles Winstead (Stephen Lang), was an actual historic Texas Ranger, but unless I missed something, the movie doesn’t identify him at all, and in fact suggests that he’s from the wrong side of the law, being that he’s so familiar with organized crime and the archetypal gangster mindset. We learn nothing of him aside from the fact that he’s clever and suspiciously insightful at predicting Dillinger’s behavior. He’s a bit sinister, and rough and streetwise in manner and dress, so perhaps the point is just that he’s not the type that J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) would consider good G-Man material: young, clean cut, college educated sorts like Hoover’s man-crush Purvis.

Billy Crudup and Christian Bale in Public Enemies
J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) recruits Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) for “A modern force of professional young men of the best sort.”

What do we learn of the main man himself? Dillinger was a self-created celebrity ahead of his time: media-savvy and always ready to produce a good, concise catchphrase at the drop of a hat. The most telling revelation about his character comes from a dying colleague John “Red” Hamilton (Jason Clarke), who, in his dying moments, chooses to armchair psychoanalyze his partner in crime, saying he’s unable to let anyone down. Really? When did the film illustrate this aspect of his character? All we can infer from his onscreen behavior is that he’s loyal to the woman he loves (although not so loyal that he doesn’t later go out on a date with a hooker while his girlfriend is in prison — although to psychoanalyze him ourselves, this action is probably a not-very-subconscious decision to allow himself to get caught, AKA “suicide by cop”). Just as he was able to casually stroll through his to-be captors’ offices without being caught, Dillinger is a ghost that goes through life without making any kind of impact. Neil in Heat may have had no friends, family, or even furniture, but he had a code: “Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.” Like Neil in Heat and Frank in Thief, Dillinger doesn’t have an exit strategy from his lifestyle until he meets a woman. Neil found love and wanted to pull a final score and then disappear forever. Dillinger wants the girl and an ongoing crime spree. Only when she is taken from him does he consider a final score to retire on.

A surprising number of name actors appear in tiny roles, including David Wenham, Lily Taylor, Leelee Sobieski, Stephen Dorff, Emilie de Ravin (from the TV series Lost) and even singer Diana Krall in a cameo. One possible explanation is that they simply wanted to work for Mann in any capacity. Or maybe their roles were larger before the editing process. One in particular that stands out is Giovanni Ribisi as Alvin Karpis, a high level fixer and organizer, sort of like the skeezy but coldly professional Nate (John Voight) in Heat.

Mann often catches a lot of flak for his typical paucity of female characters, but also for the few he does feature being rather problematic. It’s obvious that Mann is interested in stories about men (gangsters, cops, thieves, etc.). In my opinion, it doesn’t necessarily make him a misogynist if his stories don’t always feature full, richly drawn female characters. But curiously, Billie in Public Enemies may not be one of Mann’s most interesting female characters across his body of work, but she is more complexly drawn than any of the male characters in Public Enemies. We learn a little about her, certainly more than we do about anyone else, but I still don’t get why she would drop everything and run off with a gangster. Billie remains in love with Dillinger and faithful to him even when tortured and sentenced to a two-year jail term. True, she’s a young woman trapped in a dead-end job and the subject of racism (she’s part Native American). A good contrast is the character of Eady (Amy Brenneman) in Heat, whose complex relationship with the criminal Neil I found not only plausible but sadly moving. Cotillard is fine, but I think Brenneman’s touching performance as a crushingly lonely woman vulnerable to a charismatic but controlling older man really helped me understand her desire to run away. Both Eady and Billie are willing to abandon their lives, such as they are, or even implicate themselves for a man that could be arrested or killed at any moment.


Must read: Neville Brody’s fave film fonts and opening sequences, from The Guardian

Which Way Is Up: Michael Mann’s Miami Vice

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 Vice
OK, 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 Vice
Crockett 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 Vice
Gong Li and Colin Farrell in Michael Mann’s Miami Vice

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.

Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

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.

Hey Man, It’s Your Trip: Woodstock

The classic feature documentary Woodstock captures the full experience of the near-mythical 1969 festival of the same name, from septic tanks to traffic jams to brown acid. It remains an important record of one of the most peaceful spontaneous gatherings in human history, not to mention the brief-lived spirit of the hippie movement as a whole.

The original version directed by Michael Wedleigh, with a young Martin Scorsese as assistant director and editor and Thelma Schoonmaker as editor, was released the following year and played continuously in theaters for years. Oddly, it is the only film that the last surviving human on earth (Charlton Heston) chooses to watch repeatedly in The Ωmega Man. A Director’s Cut added 40 minutes of additional footage in 1994, but the new 40th Anniversary edition is a whopping four hours long, “Interfuckingmission” included. It’s unclear whether or not Scorsese and Schoonmaker were involved in either of the expanded editions.

The film is experimental in format, extending even to the aspect ratio. Nearly the first ten minutes are windowpaned, leading me at first to suspect something was wrong with the DVD. But the movie then alternates from windowpane to widescreen to splitscreen. The only other movie I can think of off the top of my head that played as loose with aspect ratios is the opening sequence to Frank Tashlin’s The Girl Can’t Help It.

Jimi Hendrix in Woodstock

With a leisurely four hours to fill, the first full 25 minutes concern the arrival of early fans while the stage is still being constructed. A surely ironic mural on one of the famously psychedelic caravan buses reads “even God loves America.” One of the festival’s most iconic images — a pair of nuns flashing a peace sign to camera — may have been in fact partially staged (as alleged in Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock). Based on the memoirs of Elliot Tiber, Lee’s film goes on to tell a conflicting, largely discounted, version of events in which a small town misfit midwifes the festival, which in turn frees his identity and transforms his family.

The first performance footage in Woodstock is an extended unbroken close-up of Richie Havens’ intense solo performance. Finally, the cameras turn the other way around and look out at the staggeringly huge crowd. Indeed, as later scenes make clear, so many people arrived that the earliest arrivals couldn’t physically leave. That such a large number of people coexisted peacefully while quite literally being trapped is a minor miracle.

Everybody knows the tale of the gargantuan crowd, but I underestimated the scale of the concert itself. In my mind, I always pictured a tiny stage dwarfed by throngs of hippies, but in actuality, the festival itself would have been a large production even if the crowds hadn’t materialized. Before simple logic forced the organizers to waive the ticket fee, the festival had a multi-million-dollar budget footing a massive stage, huge towers, power, food, lighting, and sound system.

Woodstock

Not all the acts would necessarily be known to later generations watching the documentary, but there is some surprising variety in genre; Joan Baez and Arlo Guthrie’s folk, Sly and the Family Stone’s funk, and Sha-Na-Na’s retro pop went a long way towards breaking up the sometimes tedious stretches of blues-rock jamming. Some key performances either weren’t filmed (such as The Band, at their request) or shot but excluded from the film (particularly The Grateful Dead, whose performance was compromised by heavy rain and technical issues), and some of the era’s top acts were absent altogether (most notably The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and The Rolling Stones — but Scorsese would later catch up with all three of them in his own documentaries Living In the Material World, No Direction Home, and Shine a Light). Personally, I most liked seeing The Who and Jimi Hendrix at the height of their powers, and was pleasantly surprised by an obviously nervous Crosby, Stills and Nash. CSN claimed it was only their second gig, and they seemed visibly relieved to receive applause. Each act was allotted only 1-2 songs each, even in the extended version of the film, which for many of these artists is not enough. I would have liked to see more Who footage, especially the famous moment where the often tempestuous Pete Townshend famously booted countercultural icon Abbie Hoffman offstage: “Fuck off! Fuck off my fucking stage!”

Interviews with audience members during the concert demonstrate that they were already self-mythologizing the event as it was occurring around them. A legend quickly spread that the gathering was the equivalent of a spontaneous city. Not quite, but the actual total of 500,000 people was nothing to sneeze at. But they were all correct that it was nothing less than a miracle that that many people could gather in one place and survive a massive storm on the second day, all without violence. That is, aside from Townshend again: “The next fuckin’ person that walks across this stage is gonna get fuckin’ killed!”

The film includes co-organizer Michael Lang and concertgoers facing hostile interviewers determined to express their bias that rock music is empty and meaningless. Scorsese emphasized similar confrontations in No Direction Home, where Dylan is dogged by condescending reporters determined to undermine his political and social import.

Wedleigh’s camera often seeks out nude young women. The blatant scopophilia misses the point of the burgeoning equality between the sexes by the late 60s — not only are the hippies embracing free love, they’re also obviously comfortable enough in each other’s company to bathe together like children in a bathtub. I can’t believe I’m complaining about the sight of naked girls, but Wedleigh’s camera is often just plain lustful.

Aside from free love and unashamed nudity, the next most alien aspect for contemporary post-War-on-Drugs viewers is the pragmatic attitude towards controlled substances. One of the first people seen brandishing a joint onscreen is none other than Jerry Garcia, despite his band not appearing in the performance footage. Everybody’s heard about the infamously dodgy brown acid, but dig this eminently pragmatic announcement issued from the stage: “Hey man, it’s your trip, don’t let me stop you, but if you feel like experimenting, try half a tab.” In contrast, we see a huge crowd practicing Kundalini yoga, which the guru espouses as an alternative to drugs.

One of the most striking sequences is when the documentary steps back from the proceedings to take in another angle that wouldn’t ordinary be covered in a typical concert documentary. Wedleigh takes the time to meet a Port-O-San maintainer with one son attending the festival and another flying helicopters in the Vietnam DMZ.

I Call First: Who’s That Knocking at My Door?

Martin Scorsese’s first feature film Who’s That Knocking at My Door? was shot over the course of several years, and was originally released in 1967 as I Call First. Its piecemeal origins are betrayed by two discrete sequences: one recounting the misadventures of a group of slacker friends in downtown New York, and a very different, more character and dialogue-driven love story between J.R. (Keitel) and the unnamed “Girl on the Staten Island Ferry” (Zina Bethune).

Non-linear cross-cutting between the two adds up to more than the sum of their parts. J.R. is increasingly hesitant to horse around with his gangster friends, a lifestyle involving shaking down debtors, terrorizing each other with loaded pistols, and going uptown to get with — and then rob — gullible girls. His reticence is explained by a parallel sequence in which he meets cute with The Girl. Similarly, their young courtship is given weight by the audience’s knowledge of what he’s done with his life so far, and how drastic a change he faces by considering marrying her.

Harvey Keitel in Who's That Knocking at My Door
The passion of Harvey Keitel

J.R. is much more sensitive than his brutish chums to the splendor of nature and to the catharsis of cinema. His idea of seducing a girl is to lecture her on Hollywood Westerns, John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) in particular. His models of masculinity come from the movies, especially John Wayne and Lee Marvin, and he divides women into two categories: broads and girls (which is another way of saying whores and madonnas). The Girl is savvy enough to know what she’s getting into; she clearly catches his meaning when he slips and openly refers to her as a broad.

Another piece to the puzzle was a sex montage added in order to ensure distribution. Scorsese scores J.R.’s fantasy of sex with a series of women to The Doors’ “The End”, later of course also to become a key ingredient to his peer Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece Apocalypse Now! (1979).

Harvey Keitel and Zina Bethune in Who's That Knocking at My Door
J.R. (Harvey Keitel) knows how to romance Zina Bethune: “Let me tell you something, that girl in that picture was a broad”

Holding everything together is a framing device in the form of a flashback to young J.R. being served food by his mother (Catherine Scorsese, Scrosese’s own mother). It’s an obviously happy memory, but we learn that the core theme of the film is that J.R. is emotionally crippled by the Catholic guilt instilled by his family and upbringing. He is unable to consummate the relationship with the girl he loves, and who loves him back. When he finds out she’s a victim of rape, he alternates between not believing the facts and blaming her. Even in the end, he sees her rape as something he must forgive her for. The penultimate sequence is a montage of Catholic iconography set to the title track by The Genies.

Champagne & Reefer: Rolling Stones Shine a Light

Martin Scorsese’s long history with musical documentaries and concert films includes working as assistant director and editor on Woodstock (1970), directing an account of The Band’s final concert as The Last Waltz (1978), executive producing and designing the shots for Peter Gabriel’s concert film PoV (AKA Point of View, 1987), directing part of the massive The Blues television documentary series (2003), and crafting the definitive Bob Dylan and George Harrison documentaries No Direction Home (2005) and Living in the Material World (2010).

Shine a Light is a little of all the above, but mostly just a straightforward concert film featuring the Rolling Stones in a benefit concert thrown at New York City’s Beacon Theater in 2006. The Stones are joined by special guests Christina Aguilera, Jack White, and Buddy “Motherfucker” Guy (watch the DVD bonus features for the entertaining story behind that moniker). It was originally released in IMAX, and no doubt loses something in translation from 50-foot theaters screens to small televisions. U2 did them one up by releasing U23D in 3D IMAX the year before.

Martin Scorsese and The Rolling Stones in Shine a Light
Are you sure you want to see these faces in 50-foot-high IMAX?

Like Gimme Shelter (1970), a documentary account of the fallout following the killing of a fan at a Stones concert in Altamont, Shine a Light is sometimes less than totally flattering. Mick Jagger is seen to be so ruthlessly single-minded that he will not deign to collaborate with Scorsese. Even when meeting no less than Bill Clinton, he only wants to talk about whether or not the lighting will distract from his performance. But to be fair, The Rolling Stones hit the big time long before either Scorsese or Clinton, so perhaps Jagger’s vanity may be partially excused. Let it not be said that the old codgers in the band don’t embrace new technology; witness as Jagger strikes classic poses for fans in the front row to capture on their mobiles.

Keith Richards and Buddy Guy in The Rolling Stones Shine a Light
Keef jams with Buddy “Motherfucker” Guy

Scorsese is famously a fan, utilizing Rolling Stones tunes in his soundtracks so often that Jagger now jokes that “Shine a Light was the only film of his not to feature the song Gimme Shelter.” I like The Stones well enough, but I’m not a huge fan. Here’s what a similarly casual listener might learn of them based on Shine a Light:

  • Charlie Watts, also a successful artist and jazz drummer outside of the Stones machine, comes across as quite distracted, almost to the extent of appearing senile (or maybe even more drug-addled than Keith Richards). He behaves the same in vintage interviews scattered throughout Shine a Light, so perhaps it’s just his natural demeanor. But there’s no doubt he can still rock his stripped-down drum kit.
  • Mick Jagger still has the body of a preteen girl, albeit one with impressively ripped arms.
  • Everybody knows the legendary Keith Richards has abused his body to such an extent that he has no business still walking this earth. He jokes in the film that he must come from hardy stock, but maybe he is in fact already dead, seeing as how he barely notices a kiss from Christina Aguilera. He still has chops, though, beyond going through the highly rehearsed motions of a typical Stones spectacle. In a telling moment, the camera catches him alone, playing some moody blues licks to himself as the rest of the band hobnobs.
  • Ronnie Wood comes across the best, reminding fans that although Keith Richards may have co-written many of the most popular and enduring rock songs of all time, he’s the one that plays all the solos.

Scorsese includes himself as a character in his own film, appearing at least twice in a characteristic tracking shot that caps the film: following the Stones offstage and out of the theater, and flying up into the night sky over New York. The world will have to wait for Scorsese’s true documentary on the Stones to equal No Direction Home and Living in the Material World as a true fan’s deep look into some of the world’s most interesting celebrities.