Saturday, August 05, 2006

Crime stories

Flat-out terrible, Miami Vice (Universal) is the worst film of a dismal summer for Hollywood. I take no pleasure in reporting this. Writer-director has made some fine movies since the heyday of his slick 1984-1989 TV show (and one, 1986's Manhunter, during its run) but his worst tendency, a reliance on a hoary, Hemingway-esque, man's-gotta-do-what-a man's-gotta-do ethos, gets the better of him here. I was in college, then in Hong Kong, during the program's run and paid little attention to it--I really only remember one episode, where an up-and-coming Bruce Willis gave a frightening performance as an arms dealer whose wife, or girlfriend, or mother (someone) was in love with the hard-luck Sonny Crockett, which I understand was the plot of many of the shows (and, disastrously, the movie). And I recall its sun-washed, pastel, "MTV cops" look (which the earlier Scarface remake anticipated in part) and album, the biggest-selling film and TV soundtrack for over 20 years till the kids from the Disney Channel's High School Musical recently knocked it off its perch.

On its face, the Miami Vice movie is respectable. It doesn't have the faults of so many TV-to-theater adaptations: It's serious (too much so, really) and doesn't have self-conscious, self-referential cameos from Don Johnson or Philip Michael Thomas (though what it really needed was the steely Castillo of Edward James Olmos, who would probably have balked at how insubstantial the part is in the film). A hip-hop cover of Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight," one of the show's signature compositions, is useless but not distracting. It plays over the end credits, which I was grateful to see after two very long hours.

The basic look has been rethought, and here the difficulty starts. Mann and his cinematographer, Dion Beebe, came up with some arresting digital images for their last collaboration, 2004's noirishly effective Collateral. Going for a similar feel for the new film (very little of which takes place in Miami) the filmmakers have sought to tamp down the sunlight that naturally permeates the host city and the other locales (the Dominican Republic, Paraguay, and Uruguay), and Mother Nature rebelled. Seen in a digital presentation, the daylight scenes are hazy and washed-out, overfiltered and mushy; the nighttime, or twilight, ones are heavily grainy. The strain to keep the movie gloomy shows. It's not easy in the eyes--but, oh, so much worse on the ears. The actors puff themselves up to deliver hardboiled, David Mamet-type dialogue that many have read great on the page, but evaporates, with after-traces of embarrassment, onscreen.

The plot has been apparently been lifted from a very special episode of the show ("Smugglers Blues," tied to the Glenn Frey hit) and hits the big screen 20 years later much the worse for wear. I'm not bad at following complex storylines, but this one is just a mess, putting Crockett (the dutiful, hapless Colin Farrell, in another failed bid at stardom in another vapid, director-driven project after The New World , Ask the Dust, and Alexander) and Tubbs (allegedly played by the charismatic, Oscar-winning star of Ray and co-star of Collateral and Mann's Ali, but could that maddeningly self-effacing actor really be Jamie Foxx?) in the middle of drug dealers and racist neo-Nazis (shades of Bad Boys II), and involving the former with a Chinese-Cuban Woman of Mystery, played by Gong Li.

Gong is captivating in her Chinese credits, but you can all but see the earpiece that's feeding her the English- and Spanish-language lines; her acting is as much ventriloquism as anything else, and I felt more sorrow than lust when she and her co-star, whose bad hair is trumped by an even worse, sort-of Southern accent, eventually coupled. She's also the unwitting victim of the movie's worst howler, when, taking a phone call from Crockett, she announces (via the poorly mixed dialogue track, so maybe I misheard it) that she's in "Geneva," very obviously "played" by a south-of-the-border city. For a filmmaker praised for his command of images, that's just inept.

Mann is at his best adapting the work of others. Manhunter, The Last of the Mohicans, and The Insider are finely made, absorbing films that stay on track and don't blunder into overwrought, machismo bluster, like Heat or his first film, Thief. Left to his own devices, remaking his old, stale glory, seems like remedial education; the apathy that permeates Miami Vice, with its endless, lazily edited shots of light planes in flight and "go-fast" boats skimming azure surfaces, is so much ennui. Was it all he could get going? I'd love to see his proposed film of the superb novel of the 300 Spartans, Gate of Fire. He, and we, have gone way past this.

Alternate opinions here. All I can add is that in a notable example of good taste audiences cuffed the film in its second weekend.

As focused as an assassin's bullet, 13 (Tzameti) (Palm Pictures) is calling card cinema, made to attract attention, and Hollywood has answered; a remake of this French-language thriller, from first-time Georgian filmmaker Gela Babluani, is due. It's easy to see why: The movie, which suggests They Shoot Horses, Don't They? with Russian roulette players substituted for ballroom dancers, is simple, direct, and unclouded with subplots or other diversions. It's harrowing, elegantly filmed in widescreen black-and-white...and pretty disagreeable. More unpleasant than alarming, the movie casts the director's brother, George, as the callow immigrant repairman Sebastien, who pilfers an invitation meant for his morphine-addicted employer, which takes him into the vortex of clandestine tournament play. There is a tightening of the stomach muscles as the competition (played by actors with interesting gargoyle faces and physiques) falls like dominos and is dragged into a hallway for disposal, but no real suspense--without Sebastien's making it to the final round, there is no movie. The ending, while fully in keeping with the tone of the story, struck me as so much moralizing as to how there are no shortcuts in life. You don't find this in the films of Roman Polanski, to which 13 (Tzameti) has been compared.

Others have read into 13 (Tzameti) a metaphor for our money-mad, dog-eat-dog culture, where the jaded rich cannibalize the drugged and sheeplike poor. May I suggest its main reason for being is to get its creator the hell out of the provinces so he can eat and not be eaten? Stay tuned to see how this concept is chewed over by the Hollywood machine.

No comments: