Friday, January 29, 2010

DVD of the Week: Jennifer's Body

There is a scene in Juno (2007) where two characters argue about who makes gorier horror films, Herschell Gordon Lewis or Dario Argento. The film was written by Diablo Cody and she went on to win an Academy Award for her screenplay full of witty, stylized dialogue and quirky characters. This brief exchange in Juno hinted that perhaps she had aspirations to write a horror film which is exactly what she did with Jennifer’s Body (2009). In retrospect, this film was doomed to fail commercially. Both Cody and the film’s star, Megan Fox, had become overexposed in the media and a backlash was brewing. You could feel it in the air.

Cody had already experienced some backlash once Juno became a part of the cultural zeitgeist but Fox was still enjoying the success she garnered from the immensely popular Transformers films. However, with Jennifer’s Body she couldn’t hide behind expensive CGI and noisy action sequences and had to step up and demonstrate some acting chops. Unfortunately, she had become the Maxim magazine pinup girl du jour as well as gracing numerous other covers and people were clearly tired of seeing her everywhere. Add to this fact that the horror genre is a niche market with limited appeal and so if the studio was expecting Juno-like box office results they were in for a rude awakening.

Jennifer Check (Megan Fox) and Anita “Needy” Lesnicki (Amanda Seyfried) are best friends with the former being the hot cheerleader type and the latter a nerd. Normally, these two diametrically opposed types don’t bond in high school but that’s because they’ve been friends since they were little kids. One night, they decide to check out one of Jennifer’s favorite bands, Low Shoulder, at a local bar because she’s fixated on their lead singer (a deadpan Adam Brody). The band is a spot-on jab at all of those crappy emo groups like Dashboard Confessional, right down to the sensitive ponytail guy lyrics and wardrobe reminiscent of Maroon 5 or The Killers.

After narrowly escaping a fire that engulfs the bar midway through Low Shoulder’s set (an eerie harbinger of things to come), the girls split up. Jennifer takes off with the band and an understandably upset Needy goes home and calls her boyfriend Chip (Johnny Simmons). Later that night, Jennifer shows up unexpectedly at Needy’s house covered in blood and acting very peculiar. Maybe it’s the animalistic growl she lets out before puking up a huge amount of black, oily fluid all over Needy’s kitchen floor.

The next day at school, Jennifer shows up and acts like nothing happened, shrugging off the apocalyptic fire that almost took their lives. If Jennifer was a man-eater in a metaphoric sense, she becomes one literally as she uses the promise of sex to lure boys and then proceeds to rip them to shreds, devouring them. These scenes naturally give Megan Fox the chance to show off her considerable assets. Jennifer clearly enjoys her newfound power but it comes at a horrific cost. Needy begins to realize what’s really going on with her friend and decides to stop her.

At times, Jennifer’s Body is like Heathers (1989) re-imagined as a horror film with Fox in the nihilistic Christian Slater role and a dash of Idle Hands (1999) thrown in for good measure. Both films feature a series of teen deaths and show how the media exploits them while a shell-shocked student body tries to cope. Both films also feature pitch black humor with Jennifer’s Body gleefully skewering popular culture.

Cody’s screenplay is smart and witty but the overabundance of pop culture references does instantly date it, which I’m sure will be part of its appeal to the cult following that will no doubt form once all the hype goes away. As she demonstrated with Juno, Cody has an uncanny knack for authentically capturing not just how teenagers speak but act as well. This is especially true of teenage girls and she does a good job depicting the relationship between Jennifer and Needy. Before her transformation, Jennifer wielded all the power while Needy worshipped her, but when Needy realizes what her best friend has become, she takes on a more assertive role, acquiring her own power.

Jennifer’s Body is strictly cult film material with all kinds of pop culture references – both obvious and obscure – to those savvy enough to spot them. In a refreshing tweak of the horror genre, it’s not the girls who are the victims of the monster but boys instead. It’s not surprising that the film was not a mainstream hit and those obituaries on Cody and Fox’s careers that their critics seemed to take so much delight in writing may be premature.

Special Features:

On the theatrical version of the film there is an audio commentary by director Karyn Kusama and writer Diablo Cody. Things start off slowly as the two women get caught up in watching the film. Kusama praises the “totally unique” structure of the script and briefly touches upon what drew her to the project. Naturally, she and Cody talk about the relationship between Jennifer and Needy – the dynamic that plays over the course of the film. They point out that they didn’t want to make the boys in the film deserved of punishment – just clueless.

On the extended version, Kusama returns to do a commentary on her on. Thankfully, it jumps to specific moments in this version that differ from the theatrical one. Kusama says that this version more accurately reflects Cody’s original script. She explains why this footage has been put back in and, in some cases, why it was not in the theatrical version.

I also recommend checking out a really great take on the film over at the Final Girl blog and also a fantastic analysis over at John Kenneth Muir's Reflections on Film/TV.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

J.D. Salinger (1919 - 2010)

It's with a heavy heart that I found out that J.D. Salinger died on Wednesday, January 27 at his home in Cornish, New Hampshire. His influence is widespread. He was also one of my favorite authors and like many of you I'm sure reading The Catcher in the Rye at an impressionable age had a profound effect.

There are already some excellent tributes to the man and his work. Check out the links:

Washington Post

The New York Times


The Dartmouth (actually written before his death)


The New Yorker: here and here

Secret Salinger documentary in the works

Esquire (also written before Salinger's death)

And if you want to check out some of Salinger's short stories that were originally published in now out of print magazines and never published since, check out the Dead Caulfields website. An amazing resource for all things Salinger.

"Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody."
- The Catcher in the Rye

Please feel free to leave your thoughts and memories of the man and his work in the comments section.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Hunt for Red October

Has it really been 20 years since The Hunt For Red October (1990) was released in theaters? It has aged surprisingly well. Fresh off his back-to-back successes of Predator (1987) and Die Hard (1988), director John McTiernan was at the top of his game. He had become the go-to guy for big budget, blockbuster action films. So, it made sense that he would be entrusted with kickstarting a potential franchise with Red October, an adaptation of Tom Clancy’s best-selling novel of the same name, in the hopes of launching a series of films featuring recurring Clancy protagonist Jack Ryan. Paramount Pictures wasn’t taking any chances, casting screen legend Sean Connery and pairing him up with up-and-coming movie star Alec Baldwin. The result, not surprisingly, was box office gold and arguably the strongest entry in the Jack Ryan franchise.

It's the mid-1980s and the Cold War is at its peak. American Naval Intelligence discovers that the Russians have created the perfect nuclear submarine — one that can run completely silent. CIA analyst Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin) is called in to confirm that this is true, but at the meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he puts forth a radical theory: the sub-commander of this new submarine, Captain Marko Ramius (Sean Connery), may actually be trying to defect and not trying to start World War III as they all fear. This is further complicated when the Russians report that they've lost all contact with Ramius. The powers that be send Ryan into the field in the hopes that he can contact the Russian sub-commander before his countrymen blow him out of the water. The film becomes a race against time as Ryan boards the USS Dallas, the American sub closest to the Red October, and convinces its commander (Scott Glenn) that Ramius plans to defect.

McTiernan does a nice job of showing the camaraderie aboard the USS Dallas in a brief scene where the captain of the sub tells a story about how fellow crew member Seaman Jones (Courtney B. Vance) had Pavarotti blasting over the sound system during an exercise with other subs in their fleet. It’s a nice moment of levity amidst this generally serious film. McTiernan also doesn't bog the film down with an overabundance of technical jargon. And what techno-speak there is in the film is spoken expertly by the cast in a way that is understandable. You may not understand it but you know what they mean.

Along with Das Boot (1981), Red October remains one of the few decent submarine films. And this is because McTiernan builds the tension with the right amount of white-knuckled intensity. The film attempts to maintain the suspense of whether Ramius has gone rogue or is defecting for as long as it can but since Sean Connery is playing the character this removes all doubt as to his true intentions. Connery playing a villain at this stage in his career? Ridiculous! The first hour of Red October is all set-up as the film establishes the major players and their intentions. Then, it shifts into an elaborate game of cat and mouse as both the Russians and the Americans pursue Ramius. If that wasn’t enough, McTiernan ratchets up the tension with the discovery of a saboteur aboard the Red October.

After reading the galley proofs of Tom Clancy’s novel The Hunt for Red October in February 1985, producer Mace Neufeld optioned it. The book went on to become a best-seller and still no Hollywood studio was interested because of its complicated technical jargon. Neufeld said, “I read some of the reports from the other studios, and the story was too complicated to understand.” After 18 months, he finally got a high-level executive at Paramount Pictures to read Clancy’s novel and agree to develop it into a film.

Screenwriters Larry Ferguson and Donald Stewart worked on the screenplay while Neufeld approached the United States Navy in order to get their approval. Initially, they were uncertain because of the fear that top secret information or technology might be exposed. Fortunately, several admirals were fans of Clancy’s book and argued that the film could do for submariners what Top Gun (1986) did for the Navy’s jet fighter pilots. To that end, the director of the Navy’s western regional information office in Los Angeles offered possible changes to the script that would make the Navy look good.

Alec Baldwin was approached to appear in the Red October in December 1988 but was not told for what role. Austrian actor Klaus Maria Brandauer was cast as Marko Ramius but unfortunately two weeks into film he had to quit due to a prior commitment. The producers quickly faxed a copy of the script to Sean Connery. Initially, he declined the offer because the script didn’t make any sense. It turned out that he was missing the first page which stated that the film was set in the past during the Cold War. He agreed to do it and arrived in Los Angeles on a Friday and was supposed to start filming on Monday but he asked for a day to rehearse in order to get into the role.

The Navy gave the production unparalleled access to their submarines, allowing them to take pictures of unclassified sections of the USS Chicago and USS Portsmouth for set and prop design. Key cast and crew members took rides in subs including Alec Baldwin and Scott Glenn, both of whom took an overnight trip on the USS Salt Lake City. To research for his role, Glenn temporarily assumed the identity of a submarine captain on board the USS Houston. The crew took “orders” from Glenn, who was being prompted by the sub’s commanding officer.

Shooting in actual submarines was deemed impractical and in their place five soundstages on the Paramount backlot were used with two 50-foot square platforms housing mock-ups of the Red October and the USS Dallas were built. They stood on top of hydraulic gimbals that simulated the sub’s movements. Connery remembered, "It was very claustrophobic. There were 62 people in a very confined space, 45 feet above the stage floor. It got very hot on the sets, and I'm also prone to sea sickness. The set would tilt to 45 degrees. Very disturbing.”

With The Hunt for Red October, Alec Baldwin was being groomed for A-list leading man status. Prior to this film he had appeared in an impressively diverse collection of films, playing a bland, dead Yuppie in Beetlejuice (1988), an unfaithful greaseball boyfriend in Working Girl (1988), and an unscrupulous radio station manager in Talk Radio (1988). Throughout Red October, Ryan is constantly proving his credentials to veteran military officers that he encounters, including a memorable briefing with a group of generals where he puts one of them in their place after the man condescendingly scoffs at his theory about Ramius.

After all this time has passed and two other actors have assayed the role, Alec Baldwin is still the best Jack Ryan for my money. He brings a solid mix of serious action hero with a whimsical sense of humor to his version of Ryan that is sorely missing from the stuffy, no-nonsense approach of Harrison Ford and the wooden acting of Ben Affleck. Baldwin instills a certain warmth and humanity in Ryan that is a refreshing contrast to the technology that dominates the film. Baldwin does a good job of conveying Ryan’s intelligence – after all, he’s a thinking man’s action hero – but he has his doubts and this humanizes the character.

With his baggage of iconic movie roles, Sean Connery is well-cast as the confident Ramius. There is a scene where he tells his inner circle of defectors his true intentions. Calmly eating his dinner, Ramius tells them, “Anatoli, you’re afraid of our fleet, hmm? Well, you should be. Personally, I give us one chance in three.” Connery says this in casual fashion as only he can. I suppose I believe him as a Russian sub commander as much as I believe him as an Irish cop in The Untouchables (1987). Which is to say not so much but it’s Sean freakin’ Connery, dammit! He’s the most virile Scottish actor alive today. He was James Bond and Indiana Jones’ father fer chrissakes! He pulls off the role through sheer charisma. Who else could play the enigmatic veteran commander of the entire Russian Navy? Connery has the gravitas and the iconic cinematic presence to make him seem like the ideal choice to play Ramius.

The Hunt for Red October features a stellar cast of fantastic character actors supporting Connery and Baldwin. Two of Ramius’ senior crew members are played by Sam Neill and Tim Curry. Neill is excellent as Connery’s no-nonsense second-in-command who defends him against the other defectors who doubt Ramius’ motivations but in private he voices his own concerns. You’ve got Scott Glenn as the commander of the USS Dallas, James Earl Jones as Ryan’s superior and friend, and Stellan Skarsgard as the Russian sub commander hunting down Ramius. Richard Jordan even pops up in a small but memorable part as the President’s National Security Adviser and talks like how I imagine most politicians do when they are among their own. At one point, he tells Ryan, “Listen, I’m a politician which means I’m a cheat and a liar, and when I’m not kissing babies, I’m stealing their lollipops, but it also means that I keep my options open.” It takes a special kind of actor to come in and knock it out of the park with very little screen time but Jordan does it so well and makes it look easy.

When it was released in 1990, The Hunt for the Red October was not well-received by critics from several major publications but still managed to be one of the top grossing films of the year. Leading the charge was the Washington Post’s Hal Hinson who criticized the film in his review, commenting, "Nothing much happens, at least not onscreen ... There isn't much to look at. When the action sequences finally come, the underwater images are murky and impossible to follow." In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, "Mr. McTiernan is not a subtle director. Punches are pulled constantly. The audience is told by word and soundtrack music when it should fear the worst, though the action on the screen gives the lie to such warnings." Newsweek magazine’s David Ansen wrote, "But it's at the gut level that Red October disappoints. This smoother, impressively mounted machine is curiously ungripping. Like an overfilled kettle, it takes far too long to come to a boil." However, Roger Ebert called it "a skillful, efficient film that involves us in the clever and deceptive game being played.”

Techno-thrillers don't get any better than this film — you've got Baldwin as the reluctant hero who steps up when he has to, casting Connery with his iconic presence as the enigmatic Ramius, and a top notch supporting cast of character actors. Add to this, expert direction from McTiernan and you've got the best Jack Ryan film to date. Sadly, this would be his last really good film. With the exception of The Thomas Crown Affair (1999), he has struggled with the tiresome Medicine Man (1992), signed on for the redundant Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995) and finally taken up residence in Hacksville with the brainless Rollerball remake (2002). Watching The Hunt for Red October again is a sobering reminder of what a good director he used to be.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Happy Birthday Diane Lane!

This lovely actress turns 45 today!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

My Favorite Posts/Blogs from 2009

Inspired by le0pard13's recent post over at his fantastic blog Lazy Thoughts From a Boomer, I've decided to give a shout-out to some of the blogs and posts from the blogosphere in 2009 that really struck a chord with me, inspired me and sometimes made laugh and entertained the hell out of me. This is by no means a comprehensive list and it was a real challenge picking only one example from each of these blogs as there is so much quality on each and every one. Also, my profuse apologies to anyone I might have omitted. And by all means, check these blogs out and support their creative endeavors. I would also like to give a shout-out to The Dancing Image blog for providing such a great post celebrating some of the best blogs and for the formatting which I cribbed for my own post. I have a choice quote from said post along with a link to it. Enjoy!

"Where Midnight Run stands out is in the intricate ground situation, De Niro's character is brimming with angst--"silence and rage," as Grodin puts it at one point--but we never get to it laid out for us. Gradually, as they become closer, De Niro reveals all to Grodin, but never with verbosity--and we already know almost everything he's telling Grodin anyway. The significance is in his personal revelation."
- "Midnight Run" - The Stop Button

"Streep was in her early thirties when she shot Still of the Night for her director but she looks about ten years younger. Maligned at the time by several leading critics for her attempt at the archetypal icy Hitchcockian blonde, this is frankly the Meryl Streep I have always wanted to celebrate ... Still of the Night is captivating, haunting and all of the overly nuanced and calculated technique of her later more acclaimed work is refreshingly absent."
- "M.I.A. on Region 1 DVD Tribute Month: (Film 6) Still of the Night (1982)" - Moon in the Gutter

"Marvin's Walker is the noir hero twice removed, which perhaps explains his generic qualities, his ironic distance. He's certainly not Bogart, but nor is he Belmondo, aping the affectations of Bogart: he's something much simpler, a copy of a copy who retains only the crudest, most essential features of the original, with none of the nuance or sensitivity. He's a tough guy, but not a man of honor, a scrappy fighter not above kicking an opponent in the balls or slapping around a woman. Walker's hardly a hero, stoically and expressionlessly killing his way through the line of men separating him from a payoff that wasn't even his to begin with; he feels he deserves it by virtue of the fact that he stole it."
- "Point Blank" - Only The Cinema

"A combination crazy chase movie, Easy Rider-esque examination of "America," and a one-part-existentialism/one-part-mystic philosophical statement, Vanishing Point remains both compelling...and breathtakingly beautiful."
- "Dodge Challengers and Mobius Strips: Director Richard C. Sarafian on Vanishing Point" - Some Came Running

"It's to Soderbergh's credit that Che: Part One is far removed from the conventional bio-pic, deciding to, once again, take his own path rather than down the familiar road of the warts and all, piecemeal tragi-drama; Che: Part One is so far removed from the constraints of the formulaic bio-pic that it shouldn't even be mentioned in the same sentence."
- "Che: Part One - Review" - Film for the Soul

"Where Boogie Nights succeeds masterfully is as a document of a moment in show business history and how the camaraderie of the players binds them together after the show is over. As a pure entertainment, it features plenty of ‘70s kitsch, a consistently twisted black wit, a ceaselessly mesmerizing visual palette, and that ass kicking retro soundtrack."
- "What's Up With This Script? Are You Down With This?" - This Distracted Globe

"While I don’t have that much use for Peckinpah’s worldview, and consider his prominence largely a sign of pervasive misogyny in Hollywood culture (I’ll reconsider my position the day that Hollywood regularly produces eloquently man-hating movies by female directors), I have to admit that few directors are as good at dramatizing their pathologies as Peckinpah."
- "961 (103) The Getaway (1972, Sam Peckinpah)" - Shooting Down Pictures

"Don’t let this tragic frittering away of talent taint your judgement of Unbreakable, his mature masterpiece that strikes a balance between a populist star vehicle and an uncompromising personal approach, where his rather prissy care over composition finds its affective match in the subject matter."
- "Unbreakable Patterns" - Spectacular Attractions

"Stillman sticks with a reliable stable of actors to portray his upwardly (and downwardly) mobile schemers, cartographers of the social landscape that would make Oscar Wilde proud. Stillman’s propensity for writing verbose characters that deal in pithy quotes has occasionally made him a victim of the Dawson’s Creek critique—aka, “Who actually talks like this?”"
- "Last Days of Disco, The - Uptown World" - Hammer to Nail

"One wonders if there weren't tornadoes that night, would I still have enjoyed the film as much. As a film by itself, it certainly doesn't possess the characteristics that would keep it in constant rotation. It may be for no other reason than everytime I watch Twister it's like remembering every wacky encounter I've ever had with a tornado. Including one wonderful date-night with my wife."
- "I Have A Weakness And It Goes By The Name Of Twister" - Lazy Eye Theatre

"Instead, it’s Raimi’s clear love for putting it all together. With everything going on, DARKMAN is consistently exciting and all these years after it was made it’s still an absolute blast to watch. There’s something about it’s scrappiness and nuttiness that even now puts a goofy grin on my face and even if the SPIDER-MAN films are probably “better” in a number of ways in another ten years or so I think I’ll still want to see this one instead."
- "That Would Be Just Fine" - Mr. Peel's Sardine Liqueur

"James Cameron's lean script careens along at a relentless pace, something he'd repeat with Aliens and the sequel. In the first fifteen minutes we've met the Terminator, the hero, and the damsel in distress- though she's anything but- and the characters are sculpted before our eyes with very few words."
- "The Arnold Project #14: The Terminator" - Pluck You, Too!

"The good news is that I eventually grew the hell up and my mind expanded. Eventually I became worthy of appreciating NIGHTBREED for the flawed but brilliant film it is. It was all there all the time (well, at least the parts that were not jettisoned by an apathetic FOX studios). All I had to do was settle the hell down and listen, rather than try to direct the film psychically from my theater chair."
- "Nightbreed" - kindertrauma

"Enter the 1990s. In some circles, the popular consensus is that Carpenter hasn’t made a good film since THEY LIVE. In my opinion, that’s not because Carpenter has changed as a storyteller but because we have changed as an audience. Sci-fi and horror movies simply were not as popular in the 90s as they were in the 80s. The fantasy-friendly Reagan era was over and Hollywood made a general shift toward more realistic, naturalistic films."
- "John Carpenter: The Later Years" - Maddrey Misc.

"In addition to this rich narrative, The Mosquito Coast features beautiful cinematography (it was filmed in Belize), a well-suited score, and searing performances. It's no wonder Harrison Ford considers this his favorite film - he's never played a character as dark as Allie Fox. Having rolled out three Star Wars and two Indiana Jones in the nine years before this, he was probably desperate for a "real" character."
- "Underrated MOTM: The Mosquito Coast (1986) - Getafilm

It doesn’t seem revolutionary anymore to say “I never thought an animated film could evoke such emotion and make me actually feel something” (and, oh man, the ending of this movie still gets to me) because of the success of the aforementioned Pixar movies had in transcending animation, but in 1999, it was a rare thing to say indeed, and The Iron Giant definitely makes you utter those words."
- "Revisiting 1999: The Forgotten Films -- The Iron Giant (Brad Bird)" - Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies

Breaking Away is one of the most sweetly funny films I've ever seen. In fact, re-watching the film reminded that as much as the time period from whence it came is often lauded (to the point of exaggeration) as the "last golden age of movies," it also was the last great age of serious coming-of age movies."
- "A really great visit with old friends" - Edward Copeland on Film

"Amazingly, De Palma crafts an action sequence in the very film language appropriate to the era of his film, the 1920s-1930s. In his review, critic Hal Hinson called the staircase shoot-out scene De Palma's "greatest stunt," only-half impressed, but I suggest that given the context, given the reflexivity, given the re-purposing of a classic sequence for a like thematic purpose, it is much more than a stunt. This is De Palma conceiving and deploying brilliant visuals to chart for audiences the epic nature of the Capone/Ness conflict."

- “Cult Movie Review: The Untouchables (1987) – John Kenneth Muir’s Reflections on Film/TV

Though, as usual in an Eastwood film, I don't feel the supporting characters are really all that well-played (including the rather limp Fahey), I do find Eastwood's performance so overwhelmingly impressive, the script (by Viertel, James Bridges and western auteur Burt Kennedy) so engaging, and the African locales so rapturously photographed (by Jack Green) that, for me, this becomes one of the director's most vivid efforts."
- "Film #128: White Hunter Black Heart" - filmicability with Dean Treadway

"The amount of daring it took to allow Wang Chung to score the film cannot be quantified. A music score that is almost a character onto itself at times, the new wave band best known for their nonthreatening brand of pop rock create an invigorating soundtrack that repeatedly injects the proceeding with an added oomph.. A chaotic mix of drum machines and synthesizers, their bold sound is inexplicably in perfect harmony with every scene. Frantic during the film's many chase sequences, restrained during the quieter moments."
- "To Live and Die in L.A. (William Friedkin, 1985)" - House of Self-Indulgence

"Subtle gradation's in lighting and what I perceived as subliminal overlaps of skulls on faces, etc., made me think this was the trippiest film ever made, though when I saw it later, straight, all the subliminal traces seemed to vanish, so I stopped watching it, to not tarnish the profound memory of when God spoke to me through a film by Joel Schumacher (that's right, go ahead and laugh!)."
- "Great Acid Movies #16: Flatliners (1990)" - Acidemic

"Perhaps the ultimate recognition of women as they really might be is the fact that nobody at the NYPD questions the idea that a heterosexual woman could be the serial killer. Certainly this is not an equality women might want to accept, but it does recognize that women are capable of the full range of emotions and of acting on those emotions."
- "Sea of Love (1989)" - Ferdy on Films

"Jeffrey Combs, in the role he was clearly BORN to play, just freaking OWNS it from frame one, investing his line readings and mannerisms with such delicious arrogance, intelligence, and MADNESS that most viewers would not be surprised to find out the actor actually had a basement full of bubbling beakers and body parts where he spends his hobby time."
- "Re-Animator (1985): or, Getting Ahead in Horror" - Mad Mad Mad Mad Movies

The key to understanding the unique beauty of this twisted little film is to defy the typical moviegoer propensity to focus on the star power. The real story in Birth is with the supporting cast. Mainly young Sean. Once you get him, you get the movie."
- "Birth" - Celluloid Slammer

"Arkin and Caan artfully walk this tightrope while blasting each other with the funniest bile-soaked, rapid-fire, semi-improvised dialogue ever to grace an action comedy. These two really seem like they’ve spent an adult lifetime dodging each other’s verbal onslaughts. And their partnership is one with real dirt under its fingernails, a long-abandoned model of movie friendship cut from the moth-eaten cloth of interpersonal paranoia, suspicion, respect and, yes, the sneaky subtext of homoerotic romance and, of course, panic-- exactly the kind of treat most often flattened-out or outright buried underneath the THX Dolby super-soundtracks of modern play-it-safe crash-and-bang contraptions."
- "Crash and Bang: Freebie and the Bean" - Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule

"Despite its portrait of a bleak world, there is a very redemptive spirit at the core of After Dark, My Sweet. It is a film to be applauded, a near-masterpiece of modern noir with a perfect mixture of hope and despair, of dread and relief, that carries us on the back of its keen visual touch and astute characterizations to the type of richly rewarding viewing experience that makes one fall in love with the movies in the first place."
- "After Dark, My Sweet (dir. James Foley, 1990)" - The Blue Vial

"As stated, this is Sam Peckinpah’s most crazed film, and of course, the one of which he was most proud. The movie’s atmosphere is so grimy that I actually took a hot bath after it was over. The sweaty cinematography by Alex Phillips (who later shot a myriad of exploitation efforts like THE DEVIL’S RAIN, SORCERESS and SURF II) keeps you in the hothouse ambiance throughout."
- "Forgotten Films: Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)" - Technicolor Dreams

"Unlike “The Godfather”, which deals with the upper echelons of the mob world and mythologizes the gangster lifestyle “Mean Streets” give you a view of small time marginal thugs living in Little Italy. As influenced as Scorsese was by those who came before, “Mean Streets” would go on to influence filmmakers of the next generation."
- "Mean Streets (1973) Martin Scorsese" - Twenty Four Frames

"Before you stick this thing in your player, I want you to mark out an 8 foot radius around your TV set. Then I want you to make sure there's nothing in that zone that you wouldn't mind having 40 gallons of testosterone poured over. EXTREME PREJUDICE has been proven to make wombs shrivel and has turned the frilliest of ladies quite husky; it makes men stumble, confused, into the street with a mysterious desire to chomp on cigars and arm wrestle. It's robust, potent, severe, and is completely safe when used as directed."
- "Film Review: Extreme Prejudice (1987, Walter Hill)" - Junta Juleil's Culture Shock

"Over the years, Westlake often praised Duvall’s performance. “That’s the guy I wrote,” he said more than once. In contrast to Marvin in Point Blank, Duvall’s Macklin actually feels like a living, breathing human being, with a sense of humor to boot (he and Cody laugh giddily after narrowly escaping with their lives during a shootout)."
- "The Outfit (1973)" - Film Noir of the Week

The Best of Times is one of those films that didn't draw much attention at first, but has grown an admiring following among critics and fans. And though Spottiswoode directed the piece (and is a more than adequate one, at that), in my mind it is one more associated with future director/writer/producer Ron Shelton because of his distinctive gift for creating meaningful yarns about sport and athletes. Even some of his throwaway lines could be considered classic dialogue for its snap among the characters. He knows of what he writes, too (being himself a former minor leaguer). Tell me of another writer who'd know the significance of the white shoes on a quarterback (the Namath reference, if there ever was one) and use it so effectively as was done during the replay game."
- "Appreciative Review: The Best of Times" - Lazy Thoughts from a Boomer

Lastly and certainly not least I would also like to give a heartfelt kudos to the gang over at Wonders in the Dark, in particular Sam Juliano who has been great supporter of my blog. They are an incredibly passionate group and tirelessly champion film. They are also a constant source of inspiration for me.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Best Seller

Best Seller (1987) is an example of an odd convergence of talent with a screenplay penned by B-movie schlockmeister Larry (It’s Alive) Cohen, directed by journeyman crime film director John (Rolling Thunder) Flynn, and starring A-list talent like James Woods and Brian Dennehy. The key to enjoying this film is if you can swallow Cohen’s pulpy B-movie nonsense: a slick, corporate hitman convinces a hard-boiled police detective, and sometimes author, to write his memoirs. Once you get past this rather odd premise, Best Seller is quite enjoyable to watch, especially the interplay between the two lead actors who do their best to sell the film’s set-up.

Flynn’s no-nonsense, self-assured direction quickly establishes itself in the film’s prologue set in Los Angeles circa 1972 with an ill-fated bank heist. There are some nice touches in this sequence, like the lone bum sleeping on the steps of the building that is about to be robbed, and all of the crooks wearing Richard Nixon masks (anticipating the Ex-Presidents in Point Break). A cop named Dennis Meechum (Brian Dennehy) barely survives the heist (although, a couple of his fellow officers aren’t so lucky) and goes on to write a best-selling book about the incident.

Fifteen years later, Meechum has graduated to undercover work, despite being a high-profile author in his spare time (?!), busting bad guys. During one case he’s almost killed if not for the last minute intervention by an enigmatic stranger. We are given a little insight into this cop. He’s a widower raising a teenage daughter (Allison Balson), facing lots of unpaid bills, and has missed the last four deadlines on his latest book. He’s not quite the burn-out cop that Nick Nolte was known for playing in the 1980s but he’s stuck in a rut.

Meechum finally meets the mystery man known as Cleve (James Woods) who proceeds to pitch an idea for a new book about his life and the dirty work he did for tycoon David Madlock (David Shenar) and his company Kappa International. During one of their meetings, Cleve lays it all out for a skeptical Meechum: “Corporations deal in two things, period: assets and liabilities. I removed the liabilities and I provided some assets.” It turns out that Cleve was in on the bank heist back in ’72 and helped Madlock get his start. However, he’s had a falling out with the businessman and wants to expose his corrupt enterprise with Meechum’s help. And so, Cleve and Meechum form an uneasy partnership that is volatile at best as the hitman attempts to back-up his wild claims to the understandably wary cop.

James Woods had quite a run in the ‘80s with intense performances in films like Salvador (1986), Cop (1987) and True Believer (1989). He’s in fine form here as an ultra-confident killer. His best moments are when he tries to convince Brian Dennehy’s cop of some of the people he murdered for Kappa International. Woods brings his customary intensity to these scenes and a certain reptilian charm as a corporate assassin. Cleve really isn’t a nice guy – in fact’s he’s an arrogant prick – but Woods manages to get us to like him anyways because the actor is so charismatic in his own right.

Woods plays well off of Dennehy’s variation of the cop he portrayed in F/X (1986). He’s not as rumpled and still has his issues but there’s the same sharp intellect. Meechum plans to string Cleve along until he gives him enough evidence to bust him and get some much deserved payback for the ’72 bank job. While Woods is all wiry intensity, Dennehy is a solid, imposing figure with his stocky figure. Most of the film’s best scenes involve watching these two top notch actors bounce off each other.

This is evident in a scene where Cleve tries to pick up a woman at a bar and gets into it with her date only for the guy to be put in his place by Meechum. Just one look by Dennehy makes the man back down. I know I wouldn’t want to mess with someone like Dennehy. Cleve demonstrates his considerable willpower (and threshold for pain) and, in doing so, reveals a part of his past that sets off Meechum. The tension between the two characters in this scene is tangible and ups the ante in their relationship.

Cleve’s crusade against his former corporate handlers is Larry Cohen’s blatant attack on corporate greed so prevalent in the “Greed is good” decade. Cohen wrote the screenplay, reportedly based loosely on Los Angeles cop Joseph Wambaugh, who tried to remain on the police force after several of his novels became best-sellers, in 1981 for Columbia Pictures but it was stuck in development hell due to a change in management. Orion Pictures eventually picked it up. Flynn rewrote Cohen’s script but was unable to get credit because he failed to prove to the Writers Guild of America that he had written 51% of it. The film was originally called Hard Cover but was changed to Best Seller in post-production as the former title didn’t test well with preview audiences. At the time of the film’s release, Cohen said, “I think the idea of being a killer for a major corporation was a little bizarre seven years ago. But time has caught up with the story when we’re reading all these stories about corruption in big business and corruption in Wall Street and the craziness in Washington.” Cleve’s ruthless tactics for Kappa International are meant to show just how far corporations are willing to go to exert their influence and power. It is this commentary that elevates Best Seller above your typical crime thriller – that, and the performances of Woods and Dennehy.

Best Seller was not well-received by critics to say the least. Chief among them was Roger Ebert who felt that the film was “light on plot, real light. It doesn’t have a compelling story at its center ... This is a case of a movie that has too much content, but not enough subject.” In his review for the Washington Post, Desson Howe found that the film’s premise was “flimsy” and only existed to support Wood’s “trademark intensity. He flits about the screen like an edgy sprite in search of a story.” The New York Times’ Vincent Canby was particularly harsh in his assessment of the film and felt that the filmmakers worked hard to create a “movie totally without suspense, humor, plausibility, charm, excitement, wit and substance.” The Globe and Mail’s Rick Groen was a little more forgiving in his review: “Thanks to a couple of gifted saviors, Best Seller is alive if not well; it breathes but doesn’t thrive.” Newsweek magazine’s David Ansen was even more generous in his review as he wrote, “watching Woods and Dennehy work out their tense, kinky love-hate relationship is a treat. An adroit, sardonic little thriller.”

Best Seller was backed by Orion, an independent studio that pushed through all sorts of fascinating cinematic gems in the ‘80s, from efforts by auteurs like Woody Allen, to genre fare like RoboCop (1987). None of the major studios would’ve touched pulpy material like this and it’s a shame because a film like this has become scarce in the 2000s. The film does a good job delivering the requisite genre conventions under John Flynn’s workman-like direction and the television cop show production values only add to the tawdry B-movie vibe. Best Seller is certainly no masterpiece but it is a solid piece of entertainment and one of those underappreciated gems from the ‘80s waiting to be rediscovered.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

DVD of the Week: Che: Criterion Collection

Che (2008) began as a personal project for actor Benicio del Toro around the time he was making Traffic (2000) with Steven Soderbergh. Originally, he planned on making the film about iconic revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara with Terrence Malick and its focus was to be on the disastrous Bolivian campaign in 1967. Malick eventually dropped out to go off and make The New World (2005). Soderbergh helped out Del Toro by agreeing to direct and in the process expanded the film’s scope by depicting Che’s role in the Cuban Revolution as a way of explaining his motivations for going to Bolivia.

Amazingly, Soderbergh raised the $58 million budget entirely outside of North America which allowed him much more creative freedom. The result was a four and half hour epic that refused to champion or demonize Che and instead opted to objectively depict his rise in Cuba and his fall in Bolivia. This approach ultimately doomed Che’s chances in North America where, despite breaking the film up into two more digestible parts, it received limited distribution. Predictably, it divided critics and was criminally ignored by all of the major award ceremonies – rather fitting for a film about someone who refused to rest on his laurels, always hungry to get back to the jungle and get back to work.

I think that the key to understanding Del Toro and Soderbergh’s take on Che comes from an interview with director where he said, “clearly this is a guy whose priority is going into the jungle and starting a revolution. That is the most important thing in his life … If you take away all the words and just look at what he did, the guy kept going back into the jungle.” Del Toro and Soderbergh were faced with the daunting task of making a film about an iconic historic figure, someone whose image has graced countless t-shirts and posters. Che is an extremely polarizing figure and so it makes sense that they would step back and take a more objective look at the man. Then, it would be up to the audience to decide how they felt about him.

Those looking for a crowd-pleasing underdog story a la Erin Brockovich (2000) will be disappointed by Che. The famous Argentinean is not as easy to like as the scrappy Brockovich. As depicted in Che, he’s a much more complex individual. He cares about the cause and those that fight with him but does not feel the need to show a lot of emotion. When he’s in the jungle it is all about the task at hand and living in the moment. Che never loses sight of what his objective is and his conviction never wavers, not even in the face of death. He’s like a Method actor that stays in character on and off-camera during a shoot.

Part One juxtaposes Che’s efforts to remove Batista from power in Cuba in 1958 with him addressing the United Nations in 1964 and in doing so we see Che in his element, putting into practice guerrilla warfare tactics, and we see Che the superstar espousing his beliefs to the media in New York City and the international community at large. At first, the Bolivia campaign as depicted in Part Two starts off well enough with Che sneaking into the country and meeting with his fellow revolutionaries. We see them get supplies and train in preparation for the task at hand. However, the country’s Communist party refuses to support an armed struggle, especially one led by a foreigner. The support of the peasants, so crucial in Cuba, is lacking in Bolivia, making food hard to come by. A feeling of dread creeps in as government troops gradually close in on Che, cutting off any avenue of escape.

Soderbergh maintains an objective stance by refusing to show any close-ups of Che. We always see him from a certain distance and often grouped with others. During the battle at El Uvero on May 28, 1957, Soderbergh conveys the noisy, chaotic nature of combat as men are seemingly wounded at random but there is never any confusion visually about what is going on. Twice during the battle, he takes us out of it by having a voiceover by Che where he espouses his philosophy of guerrilla warfare. With a widescreen aspect ratio, Soderbergh opens things up in Part One and this is particularly evident during the battle scenes. In Part Two, this all changes, as the smooth camerawork is replaced with hand-held cameras and a more standard aspect ratio which creates a claustrophobic feel and look. The long takes and deliberately slow pace may frustrate some expecting a more traditional biopic but I found it a welcome change from the cookie cutter mentality of most Hollywood depictions of history.

During the Cuban campaign it is evident that Che is very much a man of the people, whether it is making contact with and befriending peasants that he comes across in the jungle or treating a wounded comrade. However, Che eschews character development in favor of showing the nuts and bolts of a revolution. As Che says at one point, “A real revolutionary goes where he’s needed. It may not be directly in combat. Sometimes it’s about doing other tasks … finding food, dressing wounds, carrying comrades for miles … and then, taking care of them until they can take care of themselves.” The film takes this philosophy to heart by showing the day-to-day activities of Che and his fellow revolutionaries. We see him dressing wounds, the wounded being carried through the jungle and strategizing with his men and Fidel Castro (Demian Bichir).

Benicio del Toro effortlessly becomes Che and tones down his tendency to sometimes resort to Brando-esque acting tics (see The Way of the Gun) and plays the iconic revolutionary as a man confident of his own convictions. He conveys Che’s sharp intellect with his eyes and also does an excellent job with the physical aspects like his recurring asthma that constantly plagued him. Del Toro provides us insight into the man’s character through attitude, behavior and the way he acts towards others.

Che is ultimately a study in contrasts. What worked in Cuba did not work in Bolivia. Soderbergh’s film illustrates the differences. In Cuba, the revolutionaries were able to get the trust and support of the peasants while in Bolivia they feared the rebels. It must also be said that Castro played a key role in the success of the Cuban revolution and his absence in Bolivia, the galvanizing effect he had, is sorely missed. With Che, Soderbergh has created an unusual biopic that does its best to not try and manipulate you into feeling one way or another about the revolutionary. Instead, it shows two very different examples of the man’s philosophies put into practice and how they played out – one a success and the other a failure. Che was a polarizing historical figure long before this film came along and will continue to be long afterwards.

Special Features:

The first disc includes an audio commentary for Part One by Jon Lee Anderson, chief consultant on Che and author of Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life. He starts off by calling Che a “hippie rebel,” and a product of the 1960s. He talks about the corruption and decadence of Cuba under Batista and how this provoked men like Che and Fidel Castro to start a revolution. Anderson provides extensive historical background to what we are watching which fills in a lot of gaps and often explains what is being shown, putting it into context.

Also included is a theatrical trailer.

The second disc sees Anderson return for an audio commentary for Part Two. He explains Che’s fascination with Bolivia at an early age and why he chose that country to start a revolution. He talks about the political conditions in Bolivia that made it ripe for a revolution. Like he did with Part One, Anderson provides the backstory and elaborates in detail on what we are watching.

The third and final disc starts off with “Making Che,” a 50-minute documentary that takes a look at how the film came together. It started with producer Laura Bickford and her interested in Jon Lee Anderson’s book. She got Benicio del Toro involved and they spent years doing research and deciding what part of his life to depict. The film’s screenwriters talk about the challenge of condensing so many events into one film and so Soderbergh decided to split it up into two films. The director explains his depiction of Che, including the omission of the man’s more questionable actions, and his approach to the film. This is an excellent, in-depth look.

There are ten deleted scenes from Part One with optional commentary by Soderbergh. He puts this footage in context and explains why it was cut. These scenes provide some insight into Che and it’s nice to be able to see them.

Also included are four deleted scenes from Part Two with optional commentary by Soderbergh. Much of this footage illustrates Che’s philosophy of guerrilla warfare.

“End of a Revolution” is a 1968 documentary about the aftermath of Che’s failed revolution in Bolivia, the origins of it and a look at the forces that prevented it. The featurette begins with stills of Che’s dead body and a journalist describing the scene, his voice full of emotion. The doc does a nice job of profiling Bolivia and its people; for example, we see the brutal living and working conditions of the tin miners.

“Interviews from Cuba” features interviews with participants and historians of the Cuban Revolution conducted by producer Laura Bickford and actor Benicio del Toro. The participants talk about how they met Che and their impressions of him. They also discuss their views on the revolution. The historians talk about the key influences on the revolution and take us through significant moments of it.

Finally, there is “Che and the Digital Cinema Revolution!” Soderbergh’s film was the first feature to use the Red digital camera because of its quality and versatility in the terrain he would be shooting in. He did not have a lot of time to shoot Che and needed a camera that would allow him to shoot fast and not require a lot of artificial light. The cameras almost weren’t ready for the start of principal photography but Soderbergh stuck to his guns was able to get them just in time. This doc does a nice job taking a look at the challenges of using the Red camera and how it was the ideal technology for this particular film.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Miami Vice

It had been 17 years since Miami Vice ended its successful run on television. It became a cultural phenomenon and has since become one of the iconic shows of the 1980s. Michael Mann executive produced and acted as its guiding force in terms of tone and style for the first two seasons, helping define the show’s distinctive cinematic look. In 2006, he decided to visit Vice again, this time on the big screen in a much darker version. Although, people forget that, for its time, the show was fairly gritty in its own right (within the confines of network T.V.) and featured many downbeat endings where the bad guys got away or the protagonists won but at a terrible, personal cost.

Miami Vice was plagued by a series of production problems – nothing new for a Mann film as he faced all kinds of obstacles while making The Keep (1983) and The Last of the Mohicans (1992) – but none as well-publicized as with this project. Vice went over-schedule and over-budget with the studio claiming it to be $135 million while rumors suggested it to be in the neighborhood of $150 million. Why was this film under so much media scrutiny? Could it have been the presence of big name movie stars like Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx, both known for their extra-curricular behavior off the set? Or was it the fact that Mann decided to remake a popular T.V. show from the ‘80s?

As he did with Los Angeles in Collateral (2004), Mann presents a contemporary version of Miami that is a foreboding and dangerous place. This isn’t the neon and pastels of the T.V. show. Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) are two police officers that specialize in going deep undercover to identify and bring down drug dealers and their operations. As with all of Mann’s films we are dropped right into the middle of the action as Crockett and Tubbs are tracking a suspect in a crowded nightclub with the kind of efficiency that is customary of all Mann protagonists.

The first thing that strikes you about this scene is how it is an incredible assault on the senses with pulsating electronica on the soundtrack while Crockett and Tubbs make their way through the crush of bodies in a sweaty, claustrophobic atmosphere. In some respects, it is reminiscent of the nightclub scene in Collateral albeit with a lot less bloodshed. In the middle of all this Crockett gets an urgent call from one of his informants. He and Tubbs rush to meet him (played with sweaty desperation by John Hawkes) and find out that his family has been killed by white supremacist gang bangers. These are serious guys with heavy duty assault rifles that they use to ruthlessly kill three undercover cops without hesitation on a drug transaction gone bad.

Crockett and Tubbs soon find themselves assigned to the case with the mandate of finding out how this gang was able to discover these undercover agents and make contact with the source of their drugs – a Cuban named José Yero (John Ortiz) that operates in Central America and beyond. So, Crockett and Tubbs steal a shipment of Yero’s drugs and proceed to sell them back to him posing as experienced drug dealers. They go to South America and meet Yero in a typical Mann scene filled with tough guy speak that is sparse and all business. It’s a tense scene as the two undercover cops sell their fake reputations to Yero and try to convince the suspicious drug dealer to go into business with them. At this meeting, Crockett encounters Isabella (Gong Li), an aloof businesswoman who works for Yero and is the girlfriend to Arcángel de Jesús Montoya (Luis Tosar), the coolly confident mastermind behind the entire operation. Isabella has an air of mystery that intrigues Crockett and this grows into an intense attraction between the two of them.

Even though Mann has made it a point to distance the film from the T.V. show, the essential ingredients to the drug operation storyline are based loosely on an episode from season one entitled, “Smuggler’s Blues.” Mann even uses a few similar key lines from that episode in his film. Miami Vice goes to great lengths in showing how the international drug smuggling trade works. The director has a real eye for detail, showing in his trademark, meticulous fashion, how a massive drug transaction, done out in the ocean at night on several boats with incredible efficiency, is accomplished. These big time drug dealers have seemingly unlimited resources and Mann shows how they use sophisticated technology and weapons, that rival if not surpass anything the United States government has, to conduct and protect their extremely lucrative business.

Mann also expertly captures the way these guys speak – the sometimes cryptic lingo of both the cops and the criminals – is really like a foreign language unto itself. Mann explained in a Miami Herald article that, “Normally, if you have two undercover cops who are scamming an antagonist, you locate the audience inside the intent of the two cops. This story doesn’t let you into that inside conversation. You may be a little confused, until you get to the scene where everything clicks.” Crockett and Tubbs are dealing with the kinds of guys that would have hired someone like Vincent in Collateral with Yero as a mid-level drug dealer much like Javier Bardem’s Felix in that film.

Not much is revealed about Crockett or Tubbs’ personal lives or their backstories except that they have a very tight partnership and this is conveyed in a few minutes through looks and a verbal shorthand. We do learn that Tubbs is in a long-term relationship with fellow undercover police officer Trudy Joplin (Naomie Harris) while Crockett is a loner, only existing for the work and more than willing to fully immerse himself in his role. Their undercover work allows Mann to once again show the blurring between the law and crime as Crockett and Tubbs perform illegal tasks as their undercover alter egos. Like Neil McCauley and Vincent Hanna in Heat (1995), there is a thin line separating the two sides of the law and Crockett and Tubbs cross it repeatedly. The danger lies in losing themselves; forgetting who they are and why they are doing this work. However, they are consummate professionals and there is little doubt that this will happen. Tubbs is never once tempted and as much as Crockett loves Isabella, he knows that it will never last because of who he is and what he has to do. This does drain a little tension from the film as there is no danger that Crockett and Tubbs will really break their professional code unlike the protagonists in other Mann films.

Colin Farrell is good as Sonny Crockett in what is easily one of his strongest performances to date thanks to the excellent material he was to work with and a veteran director like Mann to guide him. He does a good job of playing a risk taker like Crockett who has nothing in his life because he is his work. Of course, meeting Isabella changes this and he ends up breaking his personal code much like Neil does when he gets romantically involved with Eady in Heat, although, not to the same life-threatening degree. Farrell is able to convey the conflict that Crockett faces as he mixes business and pleasure. Mann uses the actor’s expressive eyes to convey this internal struggle. He finally has a meaty role to sink his teeth into and does it so well, immersing himself in the character much as Crockett does in his undercover persona.

Jamie Foxx is good as Crockett’s reliable partner and moral compass. Tubbs is always there to back him up and remind him who he really is when it seems that he has forgotten. Foxx sheds his usual shtick, much like he did in Collateral (and Ali for that matter), to deliver a strong, unmannered performance. Mann regular Barry Shabaka Henley is also along for the ride as Lt. Martin Castillo and brings his customary gravitas as Crockett and Tubbs’ superior. Also of note is Tom Towles (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) who plays the leader of the white supremacists with scary intensity. He’s played a host of nasty bad guys in the past and is very effective in this role. His character is the film’s wild card, like Waingro in Heat.

Mann has been accused of writing weak female characters in his films (although, both Jesse in Thief and Justine in Heat are notable exceptions) but Isabella and, to a lesser degree, Trudy are very strong and distinctive. Isabella is particularly significant in that she is an independent businesswoman who operates in a world dominated by men. Even when she becomes romantically involved with Crockett she does not lose her identity. She is obviously drawn to him and the beautiful Gong Li conveys this so well in the looks she gives Farrell and the intimacy they share in their scenes together. Both Crockett and Isabella are professionals and in another context could have had a life together but because of who they are and what they do, it is not meant to be.

In a surprising move, Miami Vice is Mann’s most sexually-charged film with several sensual yet artfully shot sex scenes between Tubbs and Trudy and also Crockett and Isabella. It is all tastefully done with close-ups and hand-held camerawork that reduce these scenes almost to abstraction and conveys the intensity of their passions – especially that of Crockett and Isabella. They know that it won’t last because of the nature of their profession and this makes their relationship that much more immediate and intense. Like Hanna in Heat, Crockett has no allusions about his personal life. He knows that he can’t have any attachments because his life is filled with constant danger that would put anyone close to him in jeopardy as well.

The digital camerawork gives Miami Vice a grainy, gritty look and a raw, rough around the edges texture that is perfectly suited for a film about extreme characters stuck in equally extreme situations. The digital cameras also allow Mann some incredible depth of field during the night scenes so that we can see exactly what is going on during night time raids or drug runs where it would have been a murky mess with film stock. He also captures the haunting quality of the storms rumbling in the background of scenes (they shot this film during Hurricane Katrina) that provide an eerily foreshadowing of the impending violent climax to the film.

Mann also continues to demonstrate a capacity for capturing stunning landscapes, like the shots of Crockett and Tubbs flying their small plane through vast blue skies populated with expansive, billowy clouds that dwarf the jet, or another shot of a series of waterfalls surrounded by dense jungles. He also presents the beautifully lush jungles of Colombia as exotic and alluring. Mann immerses us in the sights and sounds of Central and South America and Miami, populated by crowded market places and noisy nightclubs, showing off the local color of these exotic locations.

With Heat and Collateral, Mann has repeated shown his capacity for orchestrating elaborately staged action sequences. The shoot-out in a trailer park is particularly effective in its realism and ruthless economy (as he did with Collateral). In many respects, it is so unlike the hyper-active, hyper-kinetic action one is accustomed to in mainstream Hollywood films by the likes of Michael Bay or McG because Mann drains these sequences of any slick polish and subverts our expectations by building up incredible tension and then inserting a sudden, jarring moment of violence, even ending the sequence with an unpredictable moment of tragedy that is very gripping stuff. Mann then proceeds to top this sequence with an even more impressively staged one for the film’s climax.

The origins for this film date back to 1981 when Mann read the screenplay for the pilot episode of what would become Miami Vice. While working on the show he came to a realization: “I basically tried to substitute other folks for myself on Miami Vice. I said to myself: ‘I’m here trying to help folks making these little movies – why aren’t I directing?’” So, he went off and made Manhunter (1986) but did not get serious about making a Vice film until 20 years later when, during the filming of Ali (2001) at a birthday party of Muhammad Ali, Foxx asked Mann about updating Vice and making it into a film. Mann remembers that the actor “did 20 minutes on why I should do it, doing the sound effects and the cars and everything. Then he worked on me for about two years and I finally succumbed.” The director was resistant, at first, but then, “I sort of seduced myself with it as I was writing it. It became a personal script,” he said in a Miami Herald article. He started writing the screenplay in 2004. Foxx remembers, “one day he told me he had written 90 pages and I immediately put my bid in to play Tubbs.”

According to Mann, the appeal to the material was a fascination with “the whole phenomenon and process of being undercover. It’s a very dramatic projection for an individual, to put yourself into that world and become in some ways who you really are, because that’s what undercover work really is: turning up the volume on your impulses and throttling back on your inhibitions until it becomes your favorite identity.” He wasn’t satisfied with the show’s examination of police undercover work and how it affected someone. It was not only an interest in undercover work that Mann wanted to explore in the movie but, as he told the Daily Telegraph, “Crime is the booming branch of our time and internationally operating cartels are led at least as innovatively as legal corporations. These people maintain unbelievable networks and can deliver any merchandise to any destination on Earth with perfectly planned strategies ... our world is a supermarket of illegal goods.”

Fans of the show hoping that this new film would be a nostalgia trip were disappointed as Mann was not interested in simply rehashing the series. “I couldn’t have invested a year and a half into re-invoking a sense of the 1980s. That just wasn’t a period I was interested in. I’d be bored shooting it, and most people would be bored watching it.” The appeal of the show to him was “an attitude toward how you tell these stories about being undercover – stories that are extremely emotionally active, very passionate, somewhat serious and don’t always have happy endings.” He was also interested in revisiting the city of Miami which, physically, “especially at night, has completely changed.”

When Mann showed Universal his screenplay, they weren’t too excited about a dark, violent, audience-limiting R rated film that bore no resemblance to the show. However, after Foxx won the Academy Award for Ray (2004) and was nominated for another one for Collateral, Mann underwent prolonged discussions with then Universal president Stacey Snider who greenlighted the project at $120 million and was scheduled to start production in April 2005.

The first thing Mann did was extensive research on undercover work and what it meant to go deep undercover. He and the cast spent five months before filming in Miami training and working with undercover agents from government organizations like the DEA, FBI, ATF and SWAT running all kinds of simulated scenarios. Mann also conducted extensive research with cinematographer Dion Beebe over the course of four and half months testing digital cameras in Miami. While not reducing the costs of the film, shooting digitally allowed the image to be manipulated right on the set. It also offered a greater depth of field, especially at night when most of the film takes place.

As part of his research for the role, Colin Farrell spent some time with undercover cops including a week of running scenarios that had been set up. One day, the cops he’d been working with set up a buy for 40 kilos of cocaine from some Colombians. Because the actor had gotten on so well with the cops they invited him to the meeting assuring him that nothing would happen. However, as Farrell remembers, “the shit hit the fan – guns were pulled and I nearly had an accident in my pants because I was scared.” He thought it was real and found out the next day that it was all a set-up.

During pre-production, Farrell pushed himself through intensive weight training with months spent doing morning workouts, afternoons on the shooting range using live ammunition and nights spent on mock drug runs five miles off the coast of Miami. The actor had been experiencing serious pains in his chest, shoulders and back. He saw a doctor and had an MRI done which revealed a rib that had broken away from his sternum and two herniated discs in his back – all brought on by his intense weightlifting sessions. Farrell’s injury resulted in over six weeks of delays that pushed the production start date back to June and right in the middle of one of the worst hurricane seasons in recent memory.

As with The Insider (1999), Mann faced a battle in the media that attempted to distract from the film itself by focusing instead on the troubled production. The most damning article was written by Kim Masters for Slate that criticized Jamie Foxx and Mann via anonymous sources. Part of the film was shot in the Dominican Republic in a square in Santo Domingo that even local police avoided. Mann hired gang members to work as security. When the production moved to a more upscale, tourist-heavy Colonial District area, a local police officer approached the set and got into an argument with one of the guards (supplied by the Dominican military). The cop reportedly pulled a gun and was shot and wounded. The cast and crew heard six gunshots. Farrell remembers, “I knew straight away there were gunshots. I’m thinking that there’s 20 people down there to kidnap us and I’m going to be in a basement somewhere with a hood over my head, eating porridge and water for the next week.” Cast and crew scrambled for cover and safety until their security team dealt with the situation and order was restored. Mann tried to clarify the incident in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, saying that the man who had been shot “was inebriated. When they told him, ‘You can’t get on the set,’ the guy pulled his weapon and started firing. So they fired back. It coulda happened on Sunset here in L.A.”

While Miami was recovering from devastating hurricanes, the production set up camp in the Triborder Region where Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina meet in the notoriously corrupt city of Ciudad del Este. Stephen Donehoo, the man responsible for getting the production in and out of the area safely, described it as a place “known for corruption, contraband, and tax avoidance. And there’s a huge Lebanese community, some of which apparently provides financial support to Hamas and Hezbollah. Some say they’re doing training for al-Qaeda, but I don’t think that’s true.” Negotiating entry into Ciudad del Este in Paraguay took almost a year with Donehoo and Mann meeting face-to-face top government officials, local gangsters, black-market businessmen, and a high-ranking customs official. The plan was to shoot for a few days in a local mall and three weeks in an abandoned building outside town where the film’s climatic gun battle was to take place – the scale of which was to rival the famous shoot-out in Heat. However, as Donehoo was getting all the equipment into Paraguay, the shoot-out in Santo Domingo happened.

Afterwards, Foxx refused to work outside of the United States which forced Mann to rewrite the ending so that it took place in Miami instead of Paraguay. Fortunately, he had written an ending set in Miami. The director claimed in the Slate article that, “the Miami ending worked out to be the better ending. It brought all the conflicting characters together in one arena.” Universal wanted the production to move back to the States and was happy when it did even though Farrell says that he would have rather stuck to the original schedule. Ironically, the day they got back and were shooting in a shipyard, they heard gunshots nearby and Mann says, “Five real undercover Miami-Dade narcs had gotten into a shootout in a trailer park five blocks away. We had to stop everything because it wasn’t safe.”

The Slate article went on to cite anonymous sources in the Miami Vice production team that Foxx exhibited diva-like behavior by showing up with an entourage and an attitude. While hardly scandalous news, the article went on to say that Foxx did not want to fly commercial to Miami to begin work on the film and that Universal Studios finally gave him access to their private jet. The Entertainment Weekly article also stated that Tubbs was supposed to be an excellent pilot but Foxx was afraid to fly. The actor also complained that he was getting paid less than co-star Farrell even though their salaries had been established before his Oscar win. In the end, Foxx got a big raise while Farrell took a small cut. To make matters worse, expensive HD digital cameras broke down with the change in barometric pressure and Gong Li had difficulty learning English and Spanish.

Apparently, Mann went through dozens of script changes while making the film which caused many headaches for frustrated crew members. The production ended up filming in Miami during hurricane season and some crew members felt that they continued to work in unsafe conditions, which Mann strenuously denied. During one squall that originated with Tropical Storm Dennis, windows were blown out of a tall building and glass rained down on a Ferrari with the convertible top down being driven by Farrell and Foxx nearly missing them and damaging the car. Hurricane Wilma struck the production just before the final showdown in Miami was to be filmed, heavily damaging the production office. Fortunately, Mann’s meticulous planning and preparation allowed the crew to re-group in a week and re-stage the finale.

By the end of the 105-day shoot, more than 100 crew members had resigned and twelve hours after wrapping the film, Farrell checked into rehab for exhaustion and a dependency on prescription medication stemming from an injury he sustained while making Alexander (2004) with Oliver Stone. Regular Mann collaborator, Barry Shabaka Henley told Entertainment Weekly, “Michael is brilliant, but [people started to] view him as Kurtz from Apocalypse Now, out there in Miami with severed heads on stakes. I couldn’t believe the stories I heard when I got back to Los Angeles. Mann had shot someone. The AD had shot someone. Foxx had crashed a plane.”

Why did the film cost so much? Extensive location shooting that involved taking a large cast and film crew all over the world. Miami Vice is estimated to have cost $235 million to make and market, making it the biggest risk for Universal Pictures in 2006. The film was projected to gross $100 million domestically and fell well short of that. Chairman Marc Shmuger said, “The studio underestimated the inherent challenges of translating Miami Vice to the big screen. As a commercial proposition, it had a familiar title but not a really deeply appealing connection to the larger audience.” Mann reportedly made $6 million plus a percentage of the box office receipts before Universal made any money.

Not surprisingly, Miami Vice divided critics. In his review for Time magazine, Richard Schickel praised Mann’s use of HD cameras: “In terms of cinematography, Mann may embody the future of large-scale commercial movies.” Newsweek magazine’s David Ansen praised Gong Li’s performance: “The great Chinese star hasn’t seemed comfortable in Hollywood fare, but Mann locates the lusty vulnerability under her snarl. There’s enough real passion between Farrell and Gong for the movie to get some emotional traction.” In his review for The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw wrote, “It is one of the most laconic pieces of work imaginable: radically reticent, in fact ... Miami Vice is a bold, powerful and irresistibly thrilling movie.” New York magazine’s David Edelstein wrote, “Early reviewers have labeled Miami Vice a disaster, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. It’s a sensational trip – gorgeous gaga.”

In his review for the New York Observer, Andrew Sarris wrote, “admittedly, the ‘content’ in Mr. Mann’s new version of Miami Vice is hardly Tolstoyan in its texture, but I would argue once more, as I have so often in the past, that in cinema, at least, so-called ‘form’ can constitute ‘content’ at the highest level.” In his review for The New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “Miami Vice is an action picture for people who dig experimental art films, and vice versa ... Some of the most captivating sequences have an abstract quality, as if Mr. Mann were paying homage to the avant-garde, anti-narrative of Stan Brakhage in the midst of a big studio production.” However, in his review for the New Yorker, David Denby wrote, “the picture turns dealing into a kind of expensive, high-speed scavenger hunt. Sometimes the geography is so confusing that we wonder how the film crew managed to show up at the right location.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “I got the feeling that Mann remains embarrassed by the '80s-cheese, fashion-plate showiness of his beloved series, and that he was determined not to fall back into it. His movie, as entertaining as some of it is, is so cool that it's almost too cool. It takes the sin, and much of the juice, out of vice.”

Ultimately, Miami Vice is not a kitschy parody or celebration of its television source material a la Starsky & Hutch (2004) or The Dukes of Hazzard (2005) but a serious meditation of the dangers of deep, intensive undercover work and the complex drug cartels it tries to expose and ultimately break up. Kudos to Universal for daring to release a dark, very mature action thriller in the middle of summer blockbuster season in an attempt at counter-programming. Mann has created another masterfully crafted exploration into the nature of professionalism and the inevitable clash between it and the personal lives of his protagonists. This film is arguably one his darkest explorations of these themes as he strips down our notions of character development and plot to the bare essentials while showcasing his knack for visual storytelling.

Also, check out Joe Valdez's excellent look at this film over at his blog, This Distracted Globe. Jake has a fantastic look at this film over at Not Just Movies, which is definitely worth checking out.