Friday, August 25, 2006

Before I fly...

I'm off to our northern neighbor on Sunday, to attend the Montreal World Film Festival. For all the places I've been fortunate to visit, I've never been anywhere in Canada, and based on the doleful picture Spike Lee so convincingly paints of the US post-Katrina in his masterful documentary When the Levees Broke (which HBO re-airs in its entirety on Aug. 29, the first anniversary of the hurricane) I may just stay there until 2008, when the ballot boxes can be realigned in my favor. Chilling.

I've never covered a film festival of this breadth before--215 features, plus shorts and documentaries, many of them from local and overseas talent unfamiliar to me. The kindness of other visiting journalists might be of some use to sort it out, though I'll probably just go on instinct and interest level. But Lora says as I was "in training" last week, as I went from showing to screening, taking in no less than three films in six hours on Thursday. I'm the iron man of cinema.

Of course, there was no way I wasn't going to see Snakes on a Plane. Those prankish phone calls weren't for nothing. It pretty much met my expectations, if not New Line Cinema's where the boxoffice was concerned (there's just a ceiling on R-rated horror movie performance, no matter how excited the blogosphere is and how many calls Samuel L. Jackson makes on your behalf). As I said on the Mobius Home Video Forum:

"Saw it today and it surely delivers on its title, but there are plenty of missed opportunities as well...the snakes should have popped up (again!) in the cockpit during the landing, and it missed out, I think, by not "personalizing" the serpents--the big anaconda one (stretching credibility beyond its breaking point, how did they get HIM on the plane?) should have gone one-and-one with Jackson, the cobras should have ganged up for fraternal mischief, etc. We don't really get any sense of them as "characters," though some are quite pretty in their snaky way. I think it would taken more than a few spiked leis to rouse them, however; my impression is like most reptiles, they're often quite dozy, and if this scenario had really played out (as if, in the post 9/11 airline security world) I think the baggage handlers would have found them slumbering in the hold at journey's end.

I laughed when they flew out of the plane at the end. As funny were the R-rated scenes of inadvertent carnage, like the guy who gets the spike heel through his ear, as if the producers didn't want to fire up the workstations once more for snake action so instead turned to the makeup guys and said, "Guys, what can we do here for an effect?""

All I can add is, there better not be any mother----ing snakes on my mother----ing plane.

It occurs to me I never wrote anything about Little Miss Sunshine, which has gone into wider release. I liked the script, the cast, the sweet-and-sour mood...but it didn't really implant itself, and I'm not sure there's all that much more to say. It has a hard shell and a soft center, and goes down as easily, and as swiftly, as tartufo.

I also took in The Bridesmaid, the latest thriller from Claude Chabrol, and other adaptation of a novel by Ruth Rendell, a decade after the superb Le Ceremonie. "Thriller" might be too strong a word for these sinuous, carefully crafted tales; the new one ends with a jolt that is more satisfying emotionally than viscerally, cutting the movie off as surely as an oxygen mask might be severed in a snake-filled plane. It is, however, very meticulously shot (Eduardo Serra), scored (Matthieu Chabrol, his son; his films are rather a cottage industry for his relations, to judge from the credits), and acted, by the intriguingly aquiline Benoit Magimel as an interior designer and Laura Smet as a bridesmaid with designs on him. Coincidentally, my film watching group is taking in Chabrol's Le Boucher (1969) tomorrow evening, as the director continues to ride the French New Wave he helped initiate.

As coincidentally, I went to a screening of Le Petit Lieutenant, a fine French policier starring Smet's mother, the veteran actress Nathalie Baye, in a Cesar-winning turn as an alcoholic police captain and Jalil Lespert (from Laurent Cantet's Human Resources) as her squad's latest recruit. Directed by Xavier Beauvois, the movie (opening Sept. 8) will be a sure-fire hit with anyone who enjoys the British TV drama Prime Suspect, if its distributor, Cinema Guild, puts a few marketing dollars behind it. Baye, whose long career ranges from Day for Night to Catch Me If You Can (as Leonardo DiCaprio's mother), is better-equipped to talk about it than I can, and she did, with my colleague Richard Porton at Cineaste.

It's probably too early, impolitic, or ahead-of-the-curve to talk about the three fall releases I saw, Running with Scissors, Infamous, and Candy. So I won't. Except to say that when movies about dysfunctional families, tormented writers, and drug abuse arrive, the fall prestige-and-awards season has begun, and it may all be enough to make us miss summer superheroes.

To be continued...but first, the late-breaking addition of theater reviews of Mother Courage and Her Children and Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me, from the Live Design magazine website.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Marital milestone

A quite literal milestone at that, ordered by my sister Courtney and my brother-in-law Brian and placed along Baltimore's Inner Harbor...I don't know who this "Rob" fellow is but he is fortunate in his choice, I think he would agree that wedded bliss is sufficient to keep this bond tied for many more a year...

Monday, August 14, 2006

Presto chango

Sleight-of-hand is back in style at the cinema. Going back on my word I found myself at Woody Allen's Scoop the other week, and found it an amusing trifle--what did the critics who trashed this find so special about much earlier wastes-of-effort like Mighty Aphrodite and Hollywood Ending? It's basically a comical counterpoint to Match Point, with Allen pulling the recently deceased Ian McShane out of his hat and mixing it up with journalist Scarlett Johansson (somewhat uncomfortably cast) and her aristocratic quarry, Hugh Jackman. Jackman seemed rather too old, and too tall, to be pursuing the exceedingly petite Johansson but the two are reteaming at Christmas for another abracadabra adventure, Christopher Nolan's The Prestige.

In the meantime, there is The Illusionist (Yari Film Group; opens Aug. 18). The hocus pocus here, which can be credited to the cinematographer, Dick Pope, and the production designer, Ondrej Nekvasil, is taking a modest budget and stretching it to create an excellent facsimile of turn-of-the-20th century Vienna in modern-day Prague, that most adaptable of cities (it stood in nicely for Newark, of all places, in the action-noir Running Scared). Fleshing out a short story by Pulitzer Prize-winner Steven Millhauser, writer-director Neil Burger has himself taken a great leap forward, from a modest two-hander of a debut (Interview with the Assassin) to a luxurious, cast-of-dozens period piece. With a handsome, unusual look that replicates early experiments in color photography, The Illusionist is a pleasure to watch...but maybe not as much to think about.

Which is not to say that The Illusionist is a brainless film. It's just that all this finely wrought craft (including a typically insinuating Philip Glass score) teases us with the expectation that the film might be about something more than a puzzle, which its detective character, Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), unravels with all but a hearty "A-Ha!" at the wrap-up stage. This is very much a dress-up movie, with Giamatti, Edward Norton, and Rufus Sewell, munching on middle European accents, elaborately costumed and coiffed. Norton, whose amazing performance in the criminally overlooked Down in the Valley went far beyond artifice, embraces the opportunity to conceal himself as Eisenheim, an "illusionist" who stuns onlookers with powers that extend all the way to spiritualism. Having none of it, Crown Prince Leopold (a harrumphing Sewell) puts the dogged inspector on Eisenheim's case, to unmask him as a fraud. What the prince does not anticipate is Eisenheim's bottomless love for his intended, Sophie (Jessica Biel), triggering a romantic rivalry with consequences for lives and afterlives.

Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel...something would seem to be askew in the talent vector of the film. Compared to her gifted fellows (Sewell is no slouch, either) Biel would seem to be rather ordinary, or worse, but for this one film at least movie magic has been worked. She is perfectly dressed and styled (by Ngila Dickson) as the Polish aristocrat she is playing, as if she had stepped out of a photograph, and the accent is as passable as the rest. The transformation of this valley girl Eliza Doolittle is nothing short of stunning and is the crowning touch of a romantic mystery that is all immaculately polished surfaces.

I had thought The Illusionist would have something stirring beneath its veneer--greater use made, perhaps, of Judaism, or the emergence of psychology, a little more metaphysics, a little less The Usual Suspects, a model for its own twisty alchemy. I guessed wrong, but in a summer that has been parched for more adult entertainment The Illusionist is a beautifully appointed oasis. At the very least it deserves better than its completely unimaginative tagline, "Nothing is what it seems." The movie is called The Illusionist. Like, no kidding. Lure us into the theater with something we don't know.

TRUST issues

Bart Freundlich has never made a good movie. The Myth of Fingerprints and World Traveler are morose and wearying, with only the luminous presence of his wife, Julianne Moore, to recommend them. [A third credit, the Spy Kids knockoff Catch the Kid, can be passed over with the same silence that greeted it.] An unbroken record of underachievement continues with Trust the Man (Fox Searchlight; opens Aug. 18), an uncertain stab at romantic comedy that hits neither the heart nor the funnybone.

The title sequence, which gambols about Manhattan neighborhoods, is fun, and I like that Freundlich (with the able assistance of his cinematographer, Tim Orr) has set as much of the film as possible outdoors. The attractive backdrop, however, frames a storyline that hinges on the behavioral changes of two unattractive men, Mad Ave. dropout and stay-at-home dad Tom (David Duchovny) and his brother-in-law, aging, self-involved slacker Tobey (Billy Crudup). Tom, chafing at the harried sexlessness of marriage to actress Rebecca (Moore), redefines the notion of the "play date" by fooling around with Pamela (Dagmara Dominczyk),a mother and mantrap; meanwhile, Tobey turns up the heat on an old flame, Faith (Eva Mendes) as he cools to the domestic demands of his long-time girlfriend, Elaine (Maggie Gyllenhaal, in her third film in as many weeks). A guilty Tom enters sex addiction therapy; Tobey, kicked out, rallies to woo back Elaine from new Euro boyfriend Goren (Glenn Fitzgerald); and the roundelay ends at the curtain call for Rebecca's new play, a Lincoln Center production taking place at a Lincoln Center that is seemingly steps away from Sardi's in the theater district.

I forgive Trust the Man for playing a little fast and loose with New York geography (the various restaurants and shops are all IDed by their signage, as if the film were taking place on a Google map). I was less tolerant for how unappealing the untrustworthy men are. For Crudup, it's as much styling as his constant inappropriate, and unfunny, comments; to suggest a family connection to the red-headed Moore, his hair and goatee (another example of poor grooming in a hair-challenged summer) have been dyed a weird reddish brown. Duchovny is a curious candidate for sexual addiction. He has some funny reaction shots, and would probably fit right into the whole Ferrell-Stiller-Vaughn comedy nexus if he weren't a little long in the tooth for the club (he had a bit in Zoolander). But the X-TV star is so passive he barely registers on celluloid, and wouldn't appear to have the spark, or desire, to set a bedroom afire.

Which brings me to a pet peeve about this genre in general. [A more specific peeve about this film is how the supporting players, including Garry Shandling and Ellen Barkin, are trotted out for one scene apiece to perform their specialty acts, as if at a block party. The movie has a lot of people who register only in bits.] In the sex scenes, the men are shirtless, but the women hang on to their bras and tank tops. I see this over and over again. It's not that I expect the women to bare all, but who has sex wearing their undergarments? What's the hangup with shoulder nudity? Given this peculiar chastity, the actors might as well be in twin beds, as if in a 1950's farce. How can you enjoy a contemporary sex comedy if the characters are having such old-fashioned sex?

[Photo K.C. Bailey]

Sunday, August 13, 2006

"Alive in hell"

Seeing World Trade Center (Paramount) is a walk in the park compared to the experience that was United 93. I don't say this to belittle its accomplishment, or to tread on lingering 9/11 sensitivities (watching the trailer, which had been appended to Little Miss Sunshine, was enough to make my wife anxious). It's quintessential reassurance cinema, with a star name (a taciturn, controlled Nicolas Cage), measured use of documentary footage and recreation (only one person is shown jumping to his or her death; others are heard, not seen, as in footage taken that day), an emphasis on family and friendship (to its credit, the screenplay, by Andrea Berloff, has a little humor, too), and a firebrand director tapping a new, traditional vein. World Trade Center is William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives, brought up to date by 60 years, and condensed to a single day.

There have been two Oliver Stones. One, of course, is the muckraker, the one who speaks truth to power, in films like Platoon, Salvador, and JFK, the one without whom conservative-held TV and radio shows would be looking to fill airtime--and the one whom is in the awkward position of being praised to the skies by the usual suspects for his new film. [That World Trade Center opened to expectations, and not beyond them, is a hopeful sign that perhaps the right can't get out the vote where movies are concerned, not that it's the flag waver Cal Thomas would like his foot soldiers to believe.] The other makes gonzo, druggy-seeming, go-for-broke pictures I have trouble sitting through once, The Doors, Natural Born Killers, and Alexander among them. World Trade Center suggests the emergence of an elder statesman, a Wyler or a George Stevens, in Giant mode; the rancor over the American dream, in pictures like Born on the Fourth of July, Wall Street, or the pasttime epic Any Given Sunday is entirely absent. United 93 ends in horrifying freefall, with the camera spinning downwards; World Trade Center has numerous shots of the camera itself engaged in uplift, including the coup de cinema of the viewfinder leaving Ground Zero and the world altogether, alighting on a satellite beaming images of the destruction around the globe. The havoc, however briefly, unites citizens as one.

But the old Stone has not entirely been overturned. The film's most troubling figure, its protector and destroyer, is the ex-Marine Karnes (rhymes with "Barnes," the misguided and homicidal Tom Berenger character in Platoon), who like the helpful golem Scott Glenn plays in Michael Mann's The Keep, springs into action when unspeakable evil is loosed. [Michael Shannon's performance is of unyielding, Frankenstein-monster intensity.] His arrival at the site, where trapped transit cops McLoughlin (Cage) and Jimeno (Michael Pena) are, in the latter's words, "alive in hell," is framed like an angel's descent into brimstone. But the treatment is not uncritical. Karnes' motivation, once salvation of the fallen is achieved, is vengeance--the 9-12 impulse, from which we, led by our Karnesian politicians right and left, are all reeling. In interviews, Stone has spoken of Karnes (who has since served two tours of duty in Iraq) as a "transitional" figure, one who could easily have been downplayed. But he gives us the monolithic, unapproachable figure, brave and terrifying in equal measure.

Stone is not often referred to as a director of religious pictures, perhaps because God is often seen through the prism of a peyote trip (The Doors) or invoked harshly (Born on the Fourth of July). He's not a "believer," in the sense of a Mel Gibson (before his fall) or Cecil B. DeMille. But faith plays a key role in a number of his films, and World Trade Center is consecrated by an actual vision of a solarized Jesus, as experienced by a thirsty Jimeno. A more cautious director would have left Jesus to our imagination, but Stone's wilder, trippier instincts take flight. In the context of a respectable, narrowly focused recounting of the day's events, his vital, undisciplined energies haven't been domesticated after all.

For as carefully middle-of-the-road as World Trade Center mostly is, what it left me with was a sense of anger. Watching the two men struggle in the "pick-up sticks" of the rubble, as one rescuer succintly puts it in the film (that's exactly what it looked like when I visited the wreckage two weeks after the attack), made me lament the boondoggle of the so-called "Freedom Tower," which if it ever gets built will be a heavily guarded no-fly zone to mock its very name. May it never get built; besides being a tempting target for terror (those who cannot remember the past, etc., etc.), it will never attract significant tenant support (much like its predecessor, a symbol rather than a success) and is wholly knee-jerk as commemoration. I think much of the site should be given over to parkland and memorials, with the public transport side of the buttressing "bathtub," a troubling open wound through which PATH trains pass, left exposed as a viewing area. If World Trade Center, the movie, gets anyone rethinking and debating World Trade Center, the memorial, then Oliver Stone will have added immeasurably to the public good.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

SNAKES on a phone

There's no way Snakes on a Plane, which New Line opens next Friday, can live up to the hype its title alone has generated on the web. Sadly, it can live down to it--the ads, and the posters (including the comic book one), aren't nearly as hip or as witty as some of the stuff floating out there in the bits and bytes. And the absence of press screenings indicates a movie that's more garter than rattlesnake.

But in its final week of pre-opening ballyhoo New Line has finally come up with a great promotional gimmick. Really, genius stuff, the kind of thing William Castle, producer of the 50s frightfests House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler, might have come up with had he lived into the cyber era. Go to your phones now and send a little Sam.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Waiting for Meryl

"So what are you doing here?" asked a woman who was observing the line that had sprouted from 79th St. in Central Park, as if The Gates had been revived in human form.

Good question. What was I doing, on line at the Delacorte in at 9am, waiting to pick up a pair of free tickets for tonight's performance of Mother Courage? After all, via the Drama Desk, I have a ticket for the show.

But just one. There's usually two made available, but not this time. My wife doesn't have one. So off I went to sit and wait, for the first time in three years, to pick up a pair, if I'm lucky. For Lora to see Meryl Streep, live onstage, I would do this.

I've never seen her perform onstage either. I had the opportunity five years ago, at another of the Public Theater's outdoor shows, Mike Nichols' famously starry version of The Seagull, the Murder on the Orient Express of Chekhov plays in that instance: Streep, Christopher Walken (who dropped out of Mother Courage), Kevin Kline (who dropped in), Natalie Portman, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Star Jones, Justin Timberlake...the list just went on and on. But I passed. Under murky circumstances I had been "laid off" from a magazine I had been editing, one that no longer exists (same thing happened to the next one I worked on, which explains why I work from the security of home now). I was licking my wounds in the air-cooled splendor of my parents' house so when the call came summoning me back to New York I just shrugged it off. It was an unbearably hot and humid August day, past the century mark, and The Seagull would have been just so much fried chicken up there. You don't want to be stuck at the Delacorte on a sultry summer night. Bar none the worst evening of theater in my entire life was a woeful Delacorte production of The Skin of Our Teeth, with John Goodman padding around in an outsized walrus fur coat. That one person could sweat so much I never knew.

Five years later, I will not be denied a second chance to bask in the radiance of Meryl. The woman is on fire: The Devil Wears Prada, best Hollywood movie of the summer (really). Singing country with Lindsay Lohan and Lily Tomlin in A Prairie Home Companion. The Ant Bully (well, two out of three). No one seems to care that Kline, whose profile has dimmed, is in this. Hell, no one seems to care that it's Mother Courage, not exactly a day at the beach.

"Does anyone know what this show is about?" asks a woman behind me.

No answer. Let's face it--who cares what it is? If Meryl Streep wants to play the masturbating gorilla in a revival of the notorious 2004 Broadway flop Prymate, you'd show up and see it. It's Meryl Streep.

I pipe up. "It's Brecht."

"Not Shakespeare? Isn't this Shakespeare in the Park?"

No, not Shakespeare. You must've missed this summer's earlier Delacorte production, Macbeth, starring Liev Schreiber. You know, Meryl's son in The Manchurian Candidate remake?

"Nope, not Shakespeare."

A "Hmmm" look crossed her face. "Is it funny?" she asked.

"Funny" is a very relative term here. I'd only ever read Mother Courage. It's darkly humorous, I guess, and the adapter, Tony Kushner, can be a funny guy when not bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders.

"It's not ha-ha funny, or I doubt it will be," I volunteer, adding, "I hear it's also three-and-a-half hours long."

"Oh, Christ," she muttered.

I understood. God hadn't spared me the horror of the Roundabout's awful production of The Threepenny Opera in the spring. Brechtian alienation has perhaps dated better than ol' Bertolt himself. But here I was again. On line. For Meryl. Maybe next time she'll do Moliere or something more enticing. For now, she had chosen to haul this burden up a mountain, and I'd be there to watch.

I had arrived at around 9, late for a show of this star caliber. Others had been in Central Park since dawn, as the line snaked around hill and dale. I put on my iPod, rested my head on my bag, and dozed off for a bit on my tatami mat. The flautist who has performed every time I've waited for tickets woke me with his Abba renditions. "Look, it makes sense...Mother Courage is the Thirty Years War, in Sweden, like Abba..."

I guess it did at that. The lady I had tried to educate had vanished; apparently, multiple hours of this Brecht guy, with or without America's shining star, was too much to bear. She was gone.

And sensibly so. After four hours of waiting I had snagged...a standby voucher, good for tonight only. Most everyone in back of me had failed to make even that cut. We have to go back at 6:30 to see if Lora can get a seat.

And it's raining. Good news, as it will increase the likelihood of standbys getting in. All may have been in vain if the performance is cancelled, which has never happened to me before. [I've sat through shows with monsoon-level amounts of rain, just so long as there's no lightning.]

But it's all more or less, sort-of worth it. All to see Meryl. I hope.

POSTSCRIPT. And it was...more on that when the show opens, on Aug. 21. For now I can say the experience was extraordinary--after an hour-long rain delay (during which numerous ticketholders and standbys defected) we had our pick of the vacant seats, under a calm, crisp, cool sky. The park was incredibly quiet, which really focused our attention on the piece (which seems to have been pared, to just over three hours). A memorable night.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Life lessons

Ryan Gosling, 25, is the best actor of his generation. In all his adult roles--he got his start as a child actor, on TV shows like Young Hercules--there is a commitment to his craft unseen since Edward Norton burst onto the scene in the mid-1990s. From his first breakthrough credit, as a violent Neo-Nazi with a secret past in 2001's The Believer, the drive and dedication to climb inside a character was palpably exciting. More exciting, it must be said, than the films themselves, including that ultimately didactic credit--he and Michael Pitt were a combustible pair of teen thrill killers in the sputtering mystery Murder By Numbers (2002), and he and Rachel McAdams brought conviction to his one hit, the eras-crossed romantic melodrama The Notebook (2004), as much as the actors playing their senior selves, James Garner and Gena Rowlands. Gosling has made the most of good parts in questionable films; what he needs is for one of them to reach his level of energy and discipline.

Half Nelson (Thinkfilm; opens August 11) isn't it. A certain reticence common to indie films holds it back--inference and suggestion substitute, inadequately, for showing and telling. But Gosling digs in deep, as a schoolteacher at a Brooklyn junior high whose strong bond with his inner-city students masks a shakier sense of self-worth as he slips into crack addiction. In truth, he's a little miscast; the role calls for someone a few years older, and a 25-year-old with facial hair trying to pass for 30-ish looks like a 25-year-old with facial hair trying to pass for 30-ish. But the first-time director, Ryan Fleck, was right not to card him at the door. Fleck knew he would bring something more to the part than chin stubble, and Gosling, as always, steps up. The scenes with the kids, as his character, Dan Dunne, challenges and cajoles them on topics including civil rights and history, are delightful--better than the stock "inspirational" scenes in movies like Dangerous Minds. There's a real give-and-take here, a genuine passion; the movie seems to happening live, right before your eyes, in an actual classroom.

Scanning the dial last winter I came across a Sundance Channel showing of a short film, entitled Gowanus, Brooklyn. I don't live too far from there, and its infamous, clambering-back-to-life canal, so I decided to tune in. Half Nelson is the feature-length expansion of that impressive effort, and Fleck has retained its co-star, Shareeka Epps, as Drey, a student who finds Dan high one day after class and non-judgmentally, but warily, guards his secret. [Drey's neighborhood, and home life, have fallen under the sway of a drug dealer, played with casual, cutting bemusement by Broadway performer Anthony Mackie.] There's joy in watching talented actors bounce off one another, especially when the balance tilts and Drey, the student, played with complete naturalism by Epps, is forced to carry Dan's baggage. Theirs is not a predictable relationship, and its off-guard quality pretty much carries the film.

In expanding the short, Fleck and co-writer Anna Boden have added characters, notably Dan's parents, played by Deborah Rush and Jay O. Sanders. But they haven't dramatized these relationships as well as the scenes with the students, and Half Nelson loses oxygen whenever it moves from the center to the periphery. You start to notice things, like the summery quality of the outdoor scenes for a story that's taking place during basketball season. [Then again, Brooklyn is a sunnier, far less shaded borough than Manhattan, so it may be me, a recent arrival, and not DP Andrij Parekh who needs to adjust his light levels.] I know independent filmmakers prefer to leave out the expository stuff that the studios drown in, but I find the hinting as to what's been left out equally frustrating.

That all said, Half Nelson is uncommonly humanistic, and another showcase for its lead. Gosling is reaching the point where he'll be asked to put on superhero gear, for tremendous sums of money, and become another run-of-the-mill entertainer. Long may he resist.

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.