Sunday, July 30, 2006

Scoopin' Down in Miami

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Among the many duties of good film critics is the duty of putting a particular film under review in some kind of context. A typical context would be to consider a film as part of a filmmaker's entire body of work: how a certain theme of a film, for instance, jibes with that of his other works. (In many cases, it might jibe pretty well.)

Of course, it helps if a film critic---or a wannabe like myself---has actually seen most of a director's other work before trying to place it in that particular context.

Consider two directors---Michael Mann and Woody Allen (savor that, 'cause that's probably the last time anyone will ever mention those two disparate directors in the same breath)---who've recently released new films into theaters: Michael Mann with Miami Vice (**½ out of ****) and Woody Allen with Scoop (** out of ****). To be honest, I haven't really explored the work of both of these directors in much depth, other than a few stray movies of theirs here and there. So my ensuing attempt at an auteurist analysis will probably come off as just that---an attempt. Bear with me...

I had a fairly interesting experience with Miami Vice. For its first hour, I found myself frustrated like mad at the way Michael Mann---who wrote the script in addition to directing the film---tried to complicate the hell out of what is essentially your usual drug-running crime story. As each scene ended and the next one began, I, for the life of me, couldn't figure out who Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) were going after, how certain action scenes were related to the main storyline, etc. Frankly, after a while it became rather excruciating. (A friend of mine took a charitable view and suggested Mann was just trying to take the Stephen Gaghan Traffic approach to storytelling. But then no one would mistake Miami Vice for an important message movie, as Traffic attempted to be, in its multiple-plotline, overreaching manner.)

But somehow, it got better for me until, by the end, I was actually rather moved by its ending. Once you get past its first hour and stop trying to figure out how all the plot details fit in together, Miami Vice begins to gradually gain an operatic kind of emotional power, until it almost seems to explode, both literally and figuratively, in its last half-hour or so. I still don't know if I'd call Miami Vice a good movie---its storytelling still strikes me as needlessly complicated and incoherent, and its characters generally remain one-dimensional from start to finish, as if Mann decided simply to drop us in the middle of a modern version of the old '80s Miami Vice TV series, which was co-created by Mann. But overall, it's a little better than you'd expect from what might look like yet another big-budget old-TV-show nostalgia trip from Hollywood.

Most of that is because there really isn't anything nostalgic about Miami Vice. The film is set squarely in our troubled time---and it certainly looks it too, the way it's been shot. Mann once again decided to shoot in high-definition video, following the lead of his previous film Collateral, and once again the results---courtesy of director of photography Dion Beebe---look slick, shimmery and marvelously moody, especially in night scenes (although the heavy grain does intrude on the underlit night scenes). I've always been a little suspicious of digital video as opposed to film: there's just something about the hard, cold reality of shooting on video that clashes with the more dreamlike possibilities of shooting on film. But Mann seems to be one of the few filmmakers today who can get a lot out of video. Collateral, especially, managed to render Los Angeles in oddly beautiful, mysterious nighttime hues---perfect for a film that was itself a nighttime odyssey through both a physical and psychological heart of darkness for some of its characters. Many of the same virtues are present in Miami Vice, but if ultimately I find the visual results a little less impressive here, it's not really the fault of Mann or Beebe: this film just doesn't have quite the same impact as Collateral.

I haven't seen Mann's 1995 crime epic Heat, but, from what I've heard about its subject matter, it has something to do with how the work of a policeman (Al Pacino) and a thief (Robert De Niro) seriously affect the personal lives of those around them. Miami Vice seems to be trying to evoke the same theme, but I found it hard to really care much about Crockett and Tubbs: they're possibly so devoted to their work that Mann doesn't really bother to develop them much as characters. And without relatable protagonists in this case, the poignancy of the way their attempts at having relationships outside their work fall apart in the end is sadly muffled.

Still, the filmmaking occasionally picks up the slack where the writing seems lacking. There is one scene where drugrunner José Yero (John Ortiz) looks on as he notices his right-hand lady Isabella (Gong Li) is dancing sexily with Crockett: somehow, the mood of the moment engendered by the lighting and even the background disco music suggests the jealousy Yero feels at that moment more than even the actor's expression. In other scenes, Mann indulges in a lot of close-ups of bodies and faces to emphasize particularly erotic moments: it might strike some people as typically TV-ish editing (it's like shots out of a shampoo commercial or something), but it achieves its stylistically intense effect. Even if Mann seems more interested in achieving effects rather than creating a drama of genuine dramatic substance in Miami Vice, it's nice to see that he's still flexing his technical muscles here (even if some of the action sequences are as incoherently edited as the nightclub shootout in Collateral).

There's one other slight disappointment: Gong Li. Look, she is one of the most beautiful actresses in international cinema, and she has proven herself a powerful actress in her Asian films. Of course, we all know about her collaborations with Zhang Yimou (Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern, To Live, and others). But look at that extended kiss she shares with Tony Leung in Wong Kar-Wai's 2046: thirty seconds worth of flaming passion. If she shows a similar kind of physical passion in Miami Vice around Colin Farrell, it still doesn't quite suppress the fact that she can barely speak English! Somehow that didn't really matter when Gong played the villainous Hatsumomo in Memoirs of a Geisha---probably because practically everyone was speaking in the same awkward, halting English as she was. But here, she's stuck not only speaking a rather embarrassing phonetic English, but also phonetic Spanish too (a little less embarrassing, I guess). Seriously, why did they bother to cast her in this part? Couldn't they have tried to get someone that actually spoke Spanish? Because it's not like the movie ever explains how this Asian woman somehow became second fiddle to Cuban drugrunners. Still, Gong does look ravishing throughout, and, to be fair, she does have moments of real emotional intensity. But still...

I said that I found myself rather moved by the ending of the film. In the last half-hour (possible spoiler alert), the girlfriends of both Crockett and Tubbs find themselves in the middle of danger. Tubbs' girlfriend Trudy (Naomie Harris) is abducted by a gang of white supremacists, and is seriously burned by an explosion. This leads to a brief monologue delivered by Foxx in which he discusses his regretful feelings about the danger in which his undercover policework puts her. At last, the film's major theme emerges from the ashes of the muddled plot: the anguish of trying to maintain a semblance of passion and normality in a particularly dangerous, social life-consuming line of work. That anguish, as it turns out, leads to failure in Crockett's case, as he's forced to abandon his great love, Isabella, and send her away.

The final few shots are wonderfully expressive: Farrell looking regretfully at a departing-by-boat Gong; Gong looking back longingly at Farrell; and then Farrell seen in a long shot outdoors walking into the hospital where Tubbs is at. His policework once again beckons. It's a perfect closing shot, summing up the most appealing thing about Miami Vice.

Unfortunately, it's too little, too late. Maybe I'd have to watch the film again to see if there's more to the way the film explores its main theme than I suspect. Still, at this point, thinking about it based on a single viewing, Miami Vice strikes me as fitfully brilliant but overall rather superficial. As much as I found myself feeling something genuine at the end of the film, overall I'm not sure if the movie gave me all that much to care about, especially regarding its wafer-thinly-sketched main characters.

Woody Allen's new comedy Scoop may be a mildly diverting good time, but it didn't really give me much to care about either. After the trumpeting of a "return to form" for Allen with his previous film Match Point, Allen returns to trifle mode with this half-baked comic murder mystery in which an American journalism student (Scarlett Johansson) gets a tip from the ghost of a recently killed journalist (Ian McShane) about the possibility of the son of a British nobleman (Hugh Jackman) being the "Tarot Card Killer" targeting hookers.

Like Match Point, Scoop details the attempts by an "ordinary" person to try to attract the attention of someone higher-up in society. But Match Point actually carried some real bite in its cold, smug, misanthropic attacks on the rich and self-interested; Scoop shares a similar vision---though obviously tinted with comedy glasses---but is so lacking in any kind of venom that it bounces right off the screen and into oblivion.

Nevertheless, Scoop has a few good, funny lines---most of them delivered by Allen himself, here playing second-banana to a rather bland Scarlett Johansson (playing a pretty mediocre journalist if I've ever seen one). Allen makes for loose, pleasant, amusing comic relief, playing a magician who seems to harbor a few preconceived notions about the British among whom he's living. Scoop has a nice, harmless pleasant vibe to it, and it makes for a serviceable time-waster, but the whole thing is bound to dissolve right after you've left the theater. That seems to be the consensus about a lot of recent Woody Allen comedies (Anything Else, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending)...but I wouldn't know, because I haven't seen those pictures---or a lot of Woody Allen's comedies, for that matter...

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