Archive for July 2006

Miami Vice

July 28, 2006

I have fond memories of the ’80s show Miami Vice (it fits right in there with Moonlighting and St. Elsewhere among the oddball, only-in-the-’80s series). Colorful yet morose, though not without comic relief, the show was a one-two punch of music and unforgettable moments. All these years later I remember the 1985 episode “Evan,” with William Russ as a freaky undercover agent who opened the show by emptying a Mac-10 into some mannequins to the strains of Peter Gabriel’s spooky “Rhythm of the Heat”; he ended it on the receiving end of a gun, while Gabriel’s elegiac “Biko” wailed. Another notorious episode, “Out Where the Buses Don’t Run,” ended with a corpse discovered walled up in a cop’s house while Mark Knopfler sadly mumbled his way through “Brothers in Arms.”

Those two episodes, more than twenty years old now, come back to me far more vividly than the new Miami Vice film does a few hours after I’ve seen it. Writer-director Michael Mann was the show’s executive producer, and, stealing equally from MTV and Brian De Palma’s Scarface, he inaugurated a neon-noir style simmering in pleasure and sin. Miami Vice was a movie on your little screen every Friday night. The actual movie, ironically, looks like television — bad television. Apparently married to high-def video, regardless of how crappy it looks during available-light night shooting, Mann has made an extended Miami Vice episode (very extended, at two hours and twenty-six minutes) that would’ve been laughed off the show for lack of style. Or, rather, it has a style — pompous, gritty non-style.

It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Michael Mann only undertook this project to prevent a farcical Miami Vice movie (along the lines of the Ben Stiller/Owen Wilson Starsky & Hutch) from being made. In every way, it’s a step backward for him. The story is more of the same grim, clenched, masculine bang-bang familiar from Mann’s Thief and Heat, with no special quirks other than having Gong Li as a Chinese-Cuban (huh?) gangster’s assistant. Once more, Crockett and Tubbs (here Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx) go undercover to infiltrate a drug ring, and that’s pretty much all there is to it. Mann may think he’s being minimalist and rigorous — paring away most of the show’s humor and personality and cutting, Mamet-like, down to the bone — but this is a pretty heavy and lumbering skeleton.

I appreciated a firefight late in the game — Mann eschews the usual blam-blam sound effects and opts for war-zone realism, with automatics going thupthupthup and bullets clanking loudly against metal. But this Miami Vice is lugubrious, its dialogue purely functional when it isn’t tough-guy attitudinizing (my favorite was a female cop’s rewrite of Dirty Harry’s “Do you feel lucky, punk?” speech). Farrell and Foxx are not without charm, but you wouldn’t know it here — they mostly scowl and mutter throughout the proceedings. Farrell lacks Don Johnson’s inimitable knowingness (Johnson’s manner said “Look, I know you’re scamming me; what else you got?”), and Foxx misses Philip Michael Thomas’ suave self-regard (though his hairline is more razor-sharp than ever). Typically, the few actors allowed to break out of the malaise — John Hawkes as a panicked snitch, Tom Towles as a heavy who can spot a fed mole a mile away — aren’t around much. Also typically, the women are bitterly pragmatic but thinly written — though that isn’t quite sexism here, as the men are equally two-dimensional.

The more I think about it, the more I would’ve welcomed that Miami Vice comedy — sure, bring on Will Ferrell as Crockett and Will Smith as Tubbs — because, at the very least, it would’ve brought back those neons and those pastels. In a satirical way, it would’ve respected the show more than this movie does. Michael Mann seems to have set out to extricate everything that made the show fun and original — either that or he retooled an existing generic cop script, renamed the characters, and slapped the Miami Vice title on it. The movie’s soundtrack, with its awful Nonpoint (boy, there’s an apt name for the band) cover of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” and its posturing grunge-grime rock, completes the blasphemy. They couldn’t have brought the Jan Hammer theme song out of mothballs just for old time’s sake?

Little Miss Sunshine

July 26, 2006

Waiting to pay for some items at the local pharmacy on my way home from Little Miss Sunshine, I spotted the People cover featuring JonBenet Ramsey — that poor, sad icon of everything that’s wrong and right with America. The photos of JonBenet all gussied up seem scarcely less unnatural than her violent fate. There’s something creepy and pedophilic about the whole enterprise (often fuelled by frustrated beauty-pageant one-timers like JonBenet’s mother). I flashed back on the scenes in Little Miss Sunshine showcasing little girls tarted up enough to make JonBenet look plain. The sight is both ghastly and saddening, and it brings everything in this undercooked but successful film into sharp focus. Is this sort of contest worth winning? Is it so bad to lose at being a mini-whore?

In ways big and small, the whole movie asks those questions. We’re introduced to a New Mexico family of desperate strivers — the Hoover family (the name being a not-so-subtle pun about how much they suck; apologies to readers who share the name). Richard (Greg Kinnear) has a nine-step program promising to train “losers” to become “winners,” but he hasn’t realized that nobody’s going to take how-to-win advice from someone who hasn’t won anything yet. While Richard waits for his ship to come in, in the form of a possible book deal, his frazzled wife Sheryl (Toni Collette) keeps food on the table (Sprite and take-out chicken). Her brother Frank (Steve Carell) is despondent after having been dumped by one of his (male) grad students. Richard’s dad (Alan Arkin) is an irascible old goat. Finally, the family’s two kids have their own goals: Dwayne (Paul Dano) has taken a vow of silence until he gets to go off to the Air Force Academy, and Olive (Abigail Breslin) dreams of being a beauty queen, under the tutelage of Grandpa, who seems to have a kind word only for her.

Little Miss Sunshine follows this dysfunctional clan as they travel by dysfunctional minibus from Alberquerque to Redondo Beach to enter Olive in the Little Miss Sunshine pageant. Along the way, most of what can go wrong does, and for a while the movie flirts uncomfortably with Weekend at Bernie’s territory. For the first half hour or so, the film got my back up; I assumed this indie darling (a Sundance winner picked up by Fox Searchlight for $10 million, and posting decent box-office returns in its slow rollout) would be yet another smug comedy building up middle-class straw men only to incinerate them. What we didn’t need, I thought, was a farcical variation on American Beauty, or a road trip in which everyone Hugs and Learns Something.

But as it goes along, Little Miss Sunshine accumulates depth and fleshes out its characters. Greg Kinnear’s Richard, for instance, shows us the abject terror inside the winner’s pose. Steve Carell moves away from his cartoonish specialty and makes Frank a saturnine, darkly sarcastic man, a Proust scholar in a world of people who’ve never heard of Proust. The movie stays within its realistic, lower-middle-class framework. The American Dream isn’t working for these people, because it isn’t their own dream. The ethos of winning, surface success, beauty — it deforms the best and destroys the rest. Billed as a comedy, the movie spends a surprising amount of screen time wallowing.

And then it comes — the climax at the pageant, with its too-mature little girls looking like amped-up, horribly sexualized versions of the girls in Sparkle Motion in Donnie Darko. (For good measure, Beth Grant — who played Darko‘s obscenely driven Sparkle Motion stage mom — shows up here as a pageant official who almost doesn’t let Olive in because the family is five minutes late. I half expected her to question Richard’s commitment to Little Miss Sunshine.) Charismatic but a bit chunky and plain, Olive can’t compete with the shining corruptions of girlhood on the stage, and the family realizes that with horror and then relief. What follows happily defiles the fake dignity of the pageant — of all pageants. Grandpa, the horny old coot who picked the inappropriate song Olive dances to, may have understood better than anyone the nature of the miniature meat market. The scene rises from embarrassment to triumph, and we’re left with a rejection of false values that feels honest and earned. And then, at the pharmacy, I looked at JonBenet and remembered that one of the pageants she won was Little Miss Sunburst. Under Colorado state law she would’ve been old enough this month to get her driver’s license.

LovecraCked!

July 24, 2006

Lovecraft fans are some of the most annoying people on earth when it comes to film adaptations of their guy’s stories. True, H.P. hasn’t enjoyed a very good track record in cinema — perhaps because so much of his work is essentially unfilmable. But when Lovecraft geeks whine about The Re-Animator, a fun-as-hell movie by any standard, they’re missing the point. Still, the horror-comedy anthology LovecraCked! seems determined to piss off Lovecraft die-hards.

What we have here is a real mixed bag: a few memorably weird and serious short films inspired by Lovecraft, linked by a strenuously unfunny running bit in which an “investigative reporter” roams around trying to find out what made Lovecraft Lovecraft. Occasionally this linking stuff is mildly amusing, as when the reporter interviews Troma honcho Lloyd Kaufman (who’s oblivious to the whole Lovecraft angle). But for the most part it’s just padding, and I wished they could’ve just offered the short films without the attempts at humor.

Jane Rose’s “The Statement of Randolph Carter” kicks things off nicely with an atmospheric (if a bit campy) chiller that gets its charge out of barely-glimpsed horrors. Justin Powers’ one-joke “History of the Lurkers,” which re-imagines Lovecraft’s Lurkers as pervs, goes on way past its sell-by date. Tomas Almgren’s “BugBoy” takes a jilted-lover story and turns it into something slimy and Cronenbergian. Brian Barnes’ “Witch’s Spring,” which follows a lonely guy’s encounter with a literal femme fatale, is almost the flip side of “BugBoy.” Ashley Thorpe’s “Remain” is a whacked-out dark visual party reminiscent of Kyle Cooper’s opening-credits work for Seven and other films.

Grady Granros’ “Chaos of Flesh” plays like a variant of Bruce Jones and Berni Wrightson’s classic comics story “Jenifer” (recently adapted by Dario Argento for Showtime’s Masters of Horror). Simon Ruben’s moody, Lynchian “Alecto” concerns a disturbed violinist. Doug Sakmann’s “Re-Penetrator” is a shortened, edited softcore version of the horror-porn parody of the same name, enacted with sick bloody gusto. Finally, Brian Bernhard’s “And This Was a Good Day” is a trippy cut-out journey that’s like Terry Gilliam meets Big Daddy Roth.

It’s packaged like a Troma laugh-fest, but the laughs (what few there are) aren’t the reason to give LovecraCked a day in court. Many of the short films, while sometimes seemingly unconnected to Lovecraft, are intriguing mood pieces put together by newcomers who just might have a future. So shelve it with your other experimental-short DVDs, not with Tromeo & Juliet or Dagon.

Lady in the Water

July 21, 2006

If you put a cloddish, stuck-up film critic in your movie, you’re more or less begging for vicious reviews, and Lady in the Water got ’em far and wide. My brothers and sisters in the reviewing trade can be touchy sometimes. I approached M. Night Shyamalan’s fable with an open mind, and ended up enjoying it. Perhaps it’s because I caught it on DVD, and was able to watch it in the recommended stance: curled up on a bed under a blanket, hearing a bedtime story, as the film’s protagonist Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) is obliged to do on an old Chinese woman’s couch when he wants to find out what the hell is going on.

Cleveland schleps through life as the super of a Philly apartment building loaded with offbeat characters. He has a past life he’d just as soon forget, and he’s settled into unsurprising, unchallenging drudgery. Someone has been swimming in the community pool after hours, and Cleveland soon finds out who — a “narf” named Story (Bryce Dallas Howard), a sea nymph trying to contact a writer whose book will one day change the world.

Shyamalan plays the part of that writer. Really, it’s as if he were painting a big red target on his film. Who is this egotistical asshole? Does he think his spooky summer flicks are going to bring about world peace? A closer reading of the film, though, suggests that Shyamalan’s character is nothing special; he’s only a conduit. As are all writers, and part of the point of Lady in the Water is that creativity can’t be controlled; it comes unbidden and strange, like a narf in your pool — or the grass-enshrouded “scrunts” who hunt the narfs. (This is a good time to point out that the people who hooted so disdainfully at terms like narf and scrunt apparently have no problem with terms like jedi and hobbit.)

As Cleveland gathers an unlikely group around Story, Shyamalan’s style remains sedate and thoughtful, pulling us all along into the mystery. Everyone has to figure out how to get Story what she needs, and the movie becomes a metafiction — like Adaptation, it’s a story about a story writing itself. The film critic (Bob Balaban) is useless in this context, because he brings a jaded, seen-it-all perspective, when what’s needed is the purer ardor of a child hearing a story or making one up. The movie is not Shyamalan’s broadside against every film critic everywhere — it’s part of the film’s theme that man has forgotten how to listen to the uncanny. The other characters treat the story (or Story) as if it were exciting, unpredictable real life — as indeed it is, to them — while the critic treats life like an entirely predictable story. And let’s not pretend there aren’t arrogant, everything-sucks critics out there that you just want to kick in the teeth and ask why they even bother writing about things they so obviously consider beneath them.

The rules come fast and thick — the Guardian must stand here, the Guild must join hands there, while Story awaits the Eagle — but the plot remains storybook-simple: Story needs to Go Home, like many another strange visitor to mundane human life. The tone of Lady in the Water is set right off the bat, with a crudely animated sequence that recalls the opening of Watership Down. And if the rest of the movie had been animated, it might’ve gotten an easier time of it. But then you’d miss Paul Giamatti’s delicate work (I admire how he hides his face from the camera in his early emotional moment with Story), and the rogue’s gallery including Freddy Rodriguez as a goofball toning up one half of his body, and Mary Beth Hurt as the animal-loving Healer, and the luminescent Bryce Dallas Howard, whose Story could inspire protective feelings in a stone.

Taking a page from Shyamalan’s own self-sabotaging stance of writing himself the role of mankind’s savior and throwing in a dorky film critic, I’ll say this much: Ignore the film critics on this movie. Yeah, I am one. Which means I’m telling you to ignore me, too. Just see it for yourself and decide whether it pleases you. If it does, I can say at least one critic agrees with you.

Clerks II

July 21, 2006

Kevin Smith’s Clerks II is to his original Clerks what Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset was to his original Before Sunrise. Both sequels revisit the director’s favorite autobiographical characters about a decade later, examining how life and the clock have taken their toll. And both are ideally seen as bookend pieces, to be watched one after the other. (Amusingly, the Smith/Linklater analogy extends to the characters being animated in the interim between films — Linklater’s couple in a cameo in Waking Life, Smith’s counter jockeys in ABC’s short-lived Clerks cartoon.) In Linklater’s world, people philosophize; in Smith’s world, people philosophize, with dick jokes.*

Smith opens Clerks II in grainy black-and-white, in winking emulation of the original’s (financially necessary) style. Dante (Brian O’Halloran) slouches over to the Quick Stop convenience store for another day at work, and finds it on fire. He and buddy Randal (Jeff Anderson), who works at the adjoining video store, are now out of a job. So they find themselves flipping burgers at Mooby’s, the film’s cow-themed answer to McDonald’s (which first reared its fattening head in Smith’s Dogma). After a year of this, Dante is ready to move on, and finds his “golden ticket” in Emma (Jennifer Schwalbach, Smith’s wife), a well-meaning but dull blonde who wants to whisk Dante away to Florida, where he’ll work at her father’s car wash. It sounds like the soul-killing fate worse than death endured by the men in Brokeback Mountain, marrying into respectability at the expense of what they actually want.

Randal, terrified of having his friendship with Dante construed as gay, would take issue with that comparison. But Clerks II gets at the heart of (non-sexual) love between men at least as knowingly as the Ang Lee film. Women like Emma seek to break that bond, whereas women like Becky (Rosario Dawson), Dante’s boss at Mooby’s, at least respect it even if they don’t quite understand it. The movie also brings back Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Smith himself), heterosexual lifemates who don’t seem to bother with the opposite sex very much, though Jay boasts of his alleged exploits loudly and often. In a key scene, Randal lets Dante know how much he’ll miss him when Dante moves away, and the moment carries more punch than a comparable scene would between Dante and a woman.

So far, Clerks II doesn’t sound like a lot of laughs. But there is raunchy fun to be had here; the infamous “donkey show” scene that Joel Siegel walked out on is wild without being particularly explicit. And Randal has a new foil in a weirdly dorky Mooby’s employee, Elias (Trevor Fehrman), who worships Transformers and Lord of the Rings with a fervor that offends Randal’s Star Wars-loving sensibilities. If Clerks II has a flaw, it’s that Dante and Randal don’t have enough screen time together — but then, the very form of the movie makes us feel Randal’s gradual estrangement from Dante.

How do you reconcile the desire to be true to yourself with the desire to make something of yourself? Clerks II strikes a balance, though with the unlikely deus ex machina help of Jay and Silent Bob. (Which may be Smith’s way of saying that those two have been very, very good to him.) The movie sort of ends up where the original Clerks began, with a significant difference. Clerks II will resonate with viewers in Smith’s age range (mid-thirties) in a way that goes beyond comedy, just as the first one did with twentysomethings. It also, of course, finds time for obscene riffs on everything from gay hobbits to The Silence of the Lambs. It’s clear by now that Smith is comfortable in his Quick Stop and isn’t in any hurry to burn it down.

* Smith, of course, was famously inspired to become a filmmaker in the first place after seeing Linklater’s Slacker.

Edmond

July 14, 2006

In Edmond, based on the brief and bitter play of the same name by David Mamet (who also scripted), the eponymous protagonist (William H. Macy) goes for a walk on his own personal nightside. It’s Mamet’s nightside, too — a catalog of all the bad things that can befall a denatured, feminized man trying to assert his Manhood after too many years out of practice. Edmond is presented as the cold truth, but it’s really just the truth of how the masculinist Mamet feels.

Edmond decides it’s time to ditch his wife (Rebecca Pidgeon) and, indeed, his sheltered life and go a little bit mad. After an encounter with Joe Mantegna as a barfly who says things like “Niggers have it easy,” Edmond hits the streets in search of fast, easy sexual gratification. (Also inexpensive — he’s constantly objecting to the going rate for sex acts.) Gradually his civility is stripped away and he embraces a new, honest, violent, fearless way of living, in which he can beat down black pimps with impunity and woo a waitress (Julia Stiles) to bed with no more suave an invitation than “I want to fuck you.”

Edmond has been smoothly directed by Stuart Gordon, leaving his low-budget horror films behind to return to his Chicago roots, wherein his Organic Theater Company produced work by fledgling playwright…David Mamet. Gordon’s style here finds a workable balance between the mean-streets paranoia of Martin Scorsese’s After Hours and the affectless netherworld of fellow Chicagoan John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Macy enacts the sort of imploding sad sack he could play in his sleep but doesn’t. Taking Edmond from despair to rage to euphoria all the way into madness, Macy is profoundly human and frightening.

It’s a riveting character piece, but underneath it all is Mamet the cynical puppetmaster who tells you life’s a big three-card-monte game and everyone’s out to screw you. (Including him?) I enjoy Glengarry Glen Ross and American Buffalo as much as the next movie geek, but it turns out those two seminal works say pretty much all Mamet has to say. Most everything else in his portfolio, including Edmond, is a reiteration of his pet theme that you’ve got to be smarter and more ruthless than the other rats if you want to get the cheese. And it’s by no means clear that Mamet condemns this attitude. Edmond’s ultimate fate seems to be less cautionary than the ultimate pure expression of love (and it doesn’t even have to involve women — those duplicitous sluts!).

Edmond offers Macy at peak efficiency and passion, and a welcome change of pace for Stuart Gordon. But it shows and tells nothing new, especially to those who’ve taken the Mamet ride before (and most especially those who’ve seen Oleanna, which similarly offers Macy as a sap whose splintering white male privilege spurs him to hateful speech and violence).

A Scanner Darkly

July 7, 2006

The drug-induced paranoia of Philip K. Dick and the easygoing good nature of Richard Linklater make an unstable mix. A Scanner Darkly, which Linklater directed from Dick’s 1977 cult novel, ultimately plays to too few of Linklater’s strengths; it’s garrulous and digressive, but the mood of bitter noir paranoia smothers our enjoyment like a hot wet blanket. Linklater may have admired the novel — I do, too — but that doesn’t necessarily make him the ideal director for this material. Neither does the convenient fact that he has a high-tech rotoscoping animation facility (left over from his 2001 film Waking Life) at his disposal. The animation tweaks reality just a notch, supplying a plausible visual launchpad for the film’s hallucinatory moments, but that’s really all it does. For most of the movie, we’re watching painstakingly animated footage of people talking.

Which was fine in Waking Life, Linklater’s phantasmagoric sketchpad movie of ideas. In that film, the style changed according to each speaker, illuminating and sometimes even critiquing the verbiage. A Scanner Darkly has the same glum look throughout — it owes a lot to graphic novels, especially the illustrations Julian Allen did for Bruce Wagner’s serialized Wild Palms. Some touches, like the constantly shifting “scramble suits” worn by narcotics agents to cloak their identities, are trippy and inspired. But take away the look and you’ve got a bleak, grubby tale that just isn’t suited to Linklater’s sensibilities. The actors play their hearts out, particularly Robert Downey Jr. as the loathsome know-it-all Barris. But the material seems to be at a remove from us and from Linklater. There’s nothing here he can really hook into, nothing special he brings to it.

Keanu Reeves is actually rather touching as Bob Arctor, a narc who gets addicted to the powerful drug Substance D and, in the ultimate paranoid nightmare, finds himself assigned to spy on himself. As this shambling, confused man, who wants only to make a positive difference but is no longer sure he’s making any difference, Reeves weighs in with one of his better soulful-slacker performances. Bob lives and associates with the expected drug casualties and outcasts, including a pugnacious Woody Harrelson and a freaked-out Rory Cochrane. He’s also in love with Donna (Winona Ryder), a Substance D dealer he’s using in order to make a connection with the next dealer up the ladder. Dick’s narrative logic in the book — faithfully reproduced in the film — is merciless and fatalistic, a despairing string of catch-22s. Dick was writing from anguishing personal experience — he and many of his friends took heavy or fatal blows as a result of drugs. Linklater doesn’t seem to have that kind of sadness or anger in him. So the film has no charge other than its funkadelic look, and it starts to drag.

Linklater isn’t a judgmental director — that’s the strength of his warmer films, like Dazed and Confused, in which no one is really bad. And he allows Robert Downey Jr. to flesh out the double-crossing Barris with an appealing, rabbity intensity. He feels for the main characters, but when it comes time to delineate the corrupt bureaucracy they’re up against, Linklater can’t come up with anything. The piece’s final twist comes off bland, as if Linklater didn’t believe in it. He may be happy to have fellow Austinite and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones in his films for cameo riffs, but for Linklater, Jones’ line of thinking (like Philip Dick’s) is just one of many that make up a complex world. Linklater tries on Dick’s paranoia like a scramble suit, but he never owns it, and it doesn’t fit him well.

A Scanner Darkly is certainly head and slumped shoulders above the usual summer fare (a weak compliment), and it may lead some viewers to Philip Dick’s more fulfilling work — or to Linklater’s. Unlike many films based on Dick’s work (Blade Runner is still the best; others include Total Recall, Minority Report, and Paycheck), this is a movie made by a dutiful reader of the novel, a reader careful to include the relevant passages of the source material. As with the ultimately disappointing film version of Fight Club, I appreciated A Scanner Darkly on that level — Linklater had been faithful, hadn’t screwed it up. Towards the end, Bob Arctor ponders, “Does a scanner see clearly or darkly?” Linklater doesn’t see this material clearly or darkly enough. I don’t know who would, really; Philip Dick — or, rather, the mischievous yet depressive tone of his work — is notoriously hard to adapt. A Scanner Darkly comes closer than any other movie has but still doesn’t quite get there. Once again, the old drug-addled guru — twenty-four years dead now — leaves Hollywood far behind.