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Friday, July 28, 2006

Miami Vice (***1/2)


I can feel it comin' in the air tonight

Here it is, finally, what I've been starving for.  Pirates and superheroes, narfs and clerks, impossible missions and sinking ships, none of those slaked me.  Here now is the nourishment I've sought, probably the best movie of the summer; a grim, gritty, sad, immediate, relentless, sexy, stylish, flawed, violent, visceral tour de force of crime and the brave, enigmatic, tragic men and women who fight it by pretending to be part of it; pretending too well and always on the blinding edge of falling in too deep.  

Michael Mann's new Miami Vice is as if the 80's television show never happened.  The difference between this movie and the Don Johnson and Phillip Michael Thomas series is the equivalent of throwing away your old 20” Sony Trinitron color TV with the rabbit ears and upgrading to a 50” Sony plasma HDTV.  The old set did the trick then but that was yesterday.  Yet, the upgrade isn't entirely smooth and without kinks. 

Mann's high definition video cinematography is erratic, occasionally lovely, most often off-putting.  There are some shots that are rather beautiful, specifically the daylight photography as Tubbs's airplane soars above the clouds. The imagery of the perfect blue sky and milky white clouds made me wonder why Superman Returns did not do the same thing:  mount their HD cameras onto a plane, fly as high as they can into the clouds and then digitally insert Brandon Routh into the shots in post.  The real sky is always going to be more magnificent than a CGI recreation.  But then there was the multitude of nighttime photography which was occasionally riddled with lush colors popping in the distance but most of the time was a grainy eyesore. 

Miami Vice percentages 60/40 in favor of Crockett's story.  Yet even with less screen time devoted to him, Jamie Foxx blows Colin Farrell off the screen in terms of sheer charisma.  The movie even sort of takes this position in the first meet with the sub-villain Jose Yero, when he sizes up drug traffickers “Sonny Burnett” and “Rico Cooper” and decides he trusts Foxx and not Farrell, that something's off about Farrell, there's something he just doesn't like.  And he was right; he was right in terms of the story and in terms of the movie. Who do you like more, Ray Charles or Alexander the Great?  The answer is obvious.  

Not to knock Colin Farrell.  Farrell is a good actor.  He doesn't hide behind his mullet and Fu Manchu; he works hard and he's sincere but there's something about Farrell that is just lacking while Foxx's star power crackles effortlessly.  There's a reason why one of them has an Oscar and it's evident.  Tubbs repeatedly regards and reassures Crockett and the audience: “I will never doubt you.”  But I'm not so sure he doesn't.  I know I do. Tubbs is a rock, he says what he means and does what he says with style to spare.  Meanwhile he has to deal with his partner suddenly asking out their Chinese/Cuban money laundering business associate and then disappearing for days, to Cuba, of all places. 

The imbalance between Crockett and Tubbs is also reflected in their love relationships with Gong Li and Naomie Harris. There's dueling shower sex in Miami Vice, simultanously sensual and awkward. While Foxx's sex scene with Harris is played for a big laugh, Crockett gets to tear down Gong Li's hardened emotional walls and makes her cry during sex.  Although they're both accent challenged – Farrell's Crockett, a Floridian, claims in his Irish brogue he's “a fiend for mojitos” like I'm sure any Floridian would, and sometimes it was impossible to tell what Li was saying – they have some touching conversations about how there is no future between them.  She sadly rebukes his chivalrous speech when he speaks “as a man… who if he were your husband… he'd never let you within a thousand miles of anything that can hurt you.”  She knows that's impossible, that's not the people they are or the world they live in, and so does he.  Plus he's lying to her anyway, he's a cop pretending to be a drug trafficker.  

Later on in the final shoot out, when Isabella hides from the gunfire and looks for him, sees him with the badge around his neck barking orders to the SWAT team, she's devastated because he was never honest with her as she was to him.  "Who are you?!" And what does Farrell do?  He shoves her in a car, drives her to a safe house and sends her back to Havana. I'd like to ask my friend who's a federal prosecutor in Miami if Crockett shouldn't have instead questioned Isabella about her organization and placed her under federal protection.** Instead he has Uncle Sam pay for her boat ride back to the communist country he illegally visited with her.  Meanwhile, I wish Foxx's sweet, playful relationship with his co-worker Harris received the same amount of emphasis.  

Miami Vice piles on the awesome from the get-go, dropping us with no preamble right in the middle of Crockett and Tubbs undercover in a club with the Linkin Park/Jay Z song from the trailer blasting away.  I loved how they were in the middle of an entirely different case when they got the call that feds were murdered by white supremacist drug suppliers when their informant gave them up and Crockett and Tubbs are yanked off their case into the new one.  I loved being immersed into the Miami Vice world right away, having to pay attention, watching what Crockett and Tubbs are looking for, figuring it out as we go along since so much of their line of work means throwing away the playbook and making it all up as they go. The story, motivations, betrayals, and reversals were pretty straightforward to me. 

The peril of working undercover is palpable as we follow Crockett and Tubbs into Haiti and Columbia.  They are all alone, meeting with the powerful heads of cocaine cartels,  hoping their aliases hold up against the drug dealers' technology. One wrong move, one false note, and their cover is blown. And they're dead. While being undercover and always in danger of being compromised must be a living hell, it's not like there aren't perks. Crockett and Tubbs get to drive Ferraris with dual rear jet thrusters, speedboats, and lear jets repossessed by the government for law enforcement use.  Even Batman must feel a little envious, all his toys come out of his own pocket.

There is an incredible moment when Jose Yero watches Crockett dancing with Isabella and sees through his watery eyes that “this is more than casual”, that they have fallen for each other. All that's needed is the look on his face to convey that he's always lusted for Isabella. When he shows the footage to the main drug lord with the piercing eyes, Archangel de Jesus Montoya, Mann keeps the camera behind him so we never see Montoya's face and have to imagine what he's feeling about his mistress falling for a gringo. And then the depth of their vengeance is laid out as Montoya lets Yero have her to do with as he wishes, to “carve her up and send her head one way and her leg the other.” 

Mann must have visited the set of every HBO original series, grabbed a bunch of the actors, and shoved them in a van to the Miami Vice set because it's a regular HBO actor jambearoo around here: Ciaran Hinds from Rome, John Hawkes, and the telegraph operator from Deadwood, a couple of actors from The Wire (no need for these guys to get out of costume.)

A cover version of “In the Air Tonight” plays over the closing credits but if I could have wished for just one callback to the television show, I'd want the Phil Collins version of that song to play right as Crockett and Tubbs rolled to the final shoot out with Yero and his men.  Similarly, nothing against Barry Shabaka Henley's fine work as Lt. Castillo, but Edward James Olmos was missed.

The violence is off the charts in the final act.  In the same way I believed the dinosaurs were real in Jurassic Park, I could almost swear Michael Mann actually killed people in this movie.  The bodies being riddled by a torrent of bullets, holes bursting through people's heads, the violence couldn't feel more authentic.  The assault on the white supremacists' trailer to rescue kidnapped Naomie Harris was the most bad ass thing I've seen in forever. I'm not sure if normal vice cops get to do SWAT-style raids but who cares, it's fucking awesome:  Foxx disarming the kid with the knife charging at him, stabbing him repeatedly with his own knife, taking out the guy behind him and popping him in the head in under five seconds - amazing!  Tubbs is the shit!  And then his partner Gina calmly telling the other guy that she would shoot him in the base of the skull and he'll be dead before his body even knows it, and then POP!  She caps him right there. Fantastic. Then right when it looks like Harris is safe and sound Yero remotely blows the trailer to kingdom come with Harris still in the doorway.  Holy shit.

Foxx is no less incredible in the final, eye-level "you are right there in the middle of it" shoot out when he sneaks up behind the enemy's line and blows a bloody, gaping hole right through Jose Yero. When it's all over, Mann doesn't relent, doesn't let the audience breathe as Crockett takes Isabella away to the safe house while Tubbs returns to the hospital for Harris's recovery. We can breathe when the movie suddenly stops as Crockett joins Tubbs at the hospital. 

It's an ending for us but not for Tubbs and Crockett.  They won this battle but not completely, they'll never win completely.  Montoya is still out there, as are countless other drug lords.  One line of drug smuggling has been cut off but there'll always be more.  For the men and women of Miami Vice, tomorrow is another day undercover.

** "Crockett should have questioned Isabella about her organization and placed her under federal protection.  Man, she would have been a wealth of intel.  She knew where all the money was.  If there is one thing Uncle Sam is great at it's going after money.  We could have frozen all that fucker's assets and brought his organization to its knees.  Instead she gets to spend the rest of her days sipping mojitos under the protection of Castro." 

Monday, July 24, 2006



July 24, 2006
Mako died on Saturday, July 21, 2006 after a long battle with cancer.  He was 73.
In my head there is a list of character actors I've always wanted to work with.  Mako was always at the top of the list.  Strangely, with a couple of exceptions, I've almost never seen Mako in a good movie.  Before I knew who he was, I remembered him as the Wizard in Conan the Barbarian and Conan the Destroyer.  The first time he truly came to my attention as Mako was in 1993, in Sidekicks, when he played Mr. Lee, the Mr. Miyagi-like karate teacher to the late Jonathan Brandis.   As the head of the Nakamoto corporation, he had very little to do in the movie adaptation of Michael Crichton's Rising Sun besides look stoic and play golf with Sean Connery.  In 1994, Mako played the sorcerer Nakano, chewing the scenery and teaching Connor MacLeod “the power of illusion” in Highlander: The Final Dimension.  Although he was in Bulletproof Monk, I don't remember him in it or anything else about that movie.  I don't recall seeing Mako again until he appeared as Admiral Yamamoto in that piece of garbage Pearl Harbor.  He got to utter the key line: “I fear we have awakened a sleeping giant and filled him with a terrible resolve.”  The exception to the Mako-in-bad-movies rule was his brief cameo appearance in Memoirs of a Geisha.  Mako would have been the voice of Splinter in the animated  Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie next year. Good movie or bad, Mako always stood out to me; he was always fascinating to watch, a twinkle in his eye, his performances filled with nuance. It was always a pleasant surprise when I'd watch a movie and Mako appeared (he is rarely billed in promotional materials.) A glance at Mako's IMDB page shows a career spanning over 40 years in film, television and animation.  You've seen Mako's work too and probably never realized it.
He was a pioneer for Asian-American actors in the United States. Mako has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for The Sand Pebbles in 1966.
It's as Mr. Lee in Sidekicks that'll always remember him best.  Sidekicks is one of my favorite bad movies and I loved Mako as the cantankerous but wise and caring karate teacher who called Jonathan Brandis "Mr. Dumpling." I still watch Sidekicks like a mental patient if I see it on cable just to watch Mako.   Mako was usually called upon to play wise but mischievous characters, something he did exceptionally well. He had tremendous natural comic timing and he had a gift for being able to convey that he knew a lot more than he was letting on.  One of the reasons I love Mako was that he reminds me of an older, Japanese version of my dad.  Mako always seemed like a nice man and a great guy.
I wish I got to work with him or at the very least meet him and tell him how much of a fan of his I am. I'm probably always going to regret that now.
I'll miss you, Mako.

Saturday, July 8, 2006

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (**1/2)

July 8, 2006


Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest is a Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner cartoon come to life. It's over the top, mateys. Over the top. I don't like seeing quite so many loud clanging things in my movies, not even my summer blockbusters. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was a model of restraint compared to this sequel. It was also a better movie by far.

Coming to kill Captain Jack Sparrow, Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann were Davey Jones, the East India Trading Company, island cannibals, every kind of CGI-fish monster the sea could spit out, and even familiar faces like ex-Commodore Norrington. Yet never once are Jack, Will, and Elizabeth in any real danger. Never once are they in genuine jeopardy. There is no chance whatsoever that any of the three main characters will be harmed in any lasting way. No matter what kind of absurdity the movie throws at them, they manage to scream, run in just the right place in just the right way, fight anything just well enough, and they never get tired or hurt, hungry or thirsty, or bored with all the screaming, running, and fighting they have to do.

Actually, that's the movie's strength: It's not boring and it's hellbent on entertaining you. It's weakness is that it's hellbent on entertaining you Saturday morning cartoon-style. Not one but two very long rolling ball gags: the first act with Will Turner and the crew of the Black Pearl caught in a bone version of those rolling spheres on American Gladiators , and then another one with Turner, Sparrow and Norrington having a triple threat swordfight on a wheel rolling along an island. Dead Man's Chest throws everything it can think of at you to show you a good time and thinks you'll have an even better time of it throws it at you again. Many critics have complained the storyline is incomprehensible but the multitudes of children in the audience understood what was happening just fine because they're used to cartoons.

For the pubes and post-puberty crowd, there was some enjoyable stuff. Johnny Depp is still pretty entertaining as Captain Jack Sparrow. His performance is no longer surprising and unique, but he was the only character who was in on the joke and conveyed to the audience that he understood everything that was happening was ridiculous. Sparrow is half-mad, but he's really more half-sane in a madman's movie.

Sparrow's character thankfully wasn't compromised: he's still a rogue out for his own ends, coming up with strategies on the fly and using everyone around him constantly as means to an end while fighting his heroic inclinations every step of the way. I liked the twist in the big finish where his one big act of conscience: returning to save the Black Pearl from the Kraken, was met with his being betrayed and essentially doomed to death by Elizabeth Swann.

The cliffhanger was Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan all over again, which is now officially both the greatest and most borrowed-from second-act finish in movies today. (only McCoy didn't turn on Spock and chain him to the exploding warp core.) Jack Sparrow “dies” to save his crewmates, who vow to bring him back in the third movie. We just saw this aped three years ago in X2: X-Men United and here it is again. Kill a main character and promise to bring him or her back in the third movie. Works every time. Those Star Trek writers were geniuses. I hope they get a check every time someone steals their gimmick.

Oddly, while I didn't really enjoy myself while I was watching Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, looking back at it, I'm dwelling a lot more on the things I did like: 

Keira Knightley got to play like a boy this time and she can run, scream, and swordfight CGI monster men with the best of them. I can't imagine a circumstance where I'd ever get tired of looking at her; I found myself fitful and impatient whenever she wasn't on screen. The third act of the movie when she finally shared scenes with both Depp and Orlando Bloom was the part I liked best. I liked the reveal that Sparrow's broken compass points the user towards what he or she really wants and the running gag of Elizabeth being frustrated that it kept pointing her towards Sparrow. I suppose she'll figure out in the next one that it isn't telling her she wants Jack but that she really wants a pirate and for Will to become a real pirate. And that she wants to be a pirate as well. I also liked Elizabeth using her dress to “haunt” the merchant ship she was stowed away on. I loved the shot where the dress sinks down to the depths of the sea and the implication that Elizabeth and Will's intended life together as regular people is lost forever. 

Bill Nighy is such a fantastic actor that it's a shame he was buried under the CGI claws and tentacles as Davey Jones. The animators did manage to convey some of Nighy's trademark facial expressions: his pout and his raised eyebrow. Davey Jones didn't quite have the menace he should have had, but he was much more effective and relatable than the CGI fish monsters who crewed the Flying Dutchman. Davey Jones was a neat idea in conception but lacked the menace and pathos of Geoffrey Rush's villainous Captain Barbossa, and that's the damn CGI's fault. (Rush's cameo at the very end as the Captain on the expedition to World's End was a great fucking twist that sold me on the third Pirates movie instantly.)

I liked the Kraken and I liked the plan Jack, Will, and Elizabeth executed to blow it up with the gunpowder and rum. I also liked the expanded roles of the two pirates, the fat one and the wooden-eyed one, and their philosophical conversations. They're a non-gay pirate version of R2D2 and C-3PO.

It's a strange dichotomy: ultimately, I think Dead Man's Chest is a bad movie but a good cartoon. Regardless, I still want more Pirates and I'll be there with bells on for Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End .