August 30, 2006

Miami Vice

miamiviceMichael Mann has written a plot steeped in the classic tropes of the "Miami Vice" TV show, and directed a feature film with the same ruthless cool and no-bullshit efficiency of his previous crime epics, Collateral and Heat. Mann "filmed" this movie with digital cameras, which once again, just like Collateral, lends superior authenticity to the action. The digital video + muddled dialog recording = a minimum of artifiice. It's true that I didn't understand a lot of the dialog, especially with all the foreign accents, but the details of the dialog was not as important as the atmosphere, and I really enjoyed breathing it in.

The movie concludes with a climactic firefight, not as long or legendary as the bank heist in Heat, but expertly and imaginatively staged. I am reminded of the nightclub confrontation in Collateral, which could easily have been confusing and muddled, but instead was intuitive and engaging. This final gun battle in Miami Vice, however, adds some new tricks, which I appreciated: at one point, when a gunsel gets shot, his blood spatters the hand-held camera behind him. The cameraman then moves over to another spot where one of his associates is still firing, and later, moves again, all with blood dripping on the lens. My description makes it sound gory and cheap, but it was not- the digital hand-held quality made it feel more like authentic documentary footage.

Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx acquit themselves well, although Emily is totally turned off my Farrell's doughy scumbag look. I tried explaining that he is playing an undercover cop who's trying to look like a scumbag, but she wouldn't have it. Academy-Award winner Jamie Foxx's "Ricardo Tubbs" character was fleshed out a bit from the TV show. On TV, all too often Phillip Michael Thomas simply supported Don Johnson, brandished a shotgun, and occasionally lapsed into a Jamaican accent as his undercover role required.

Many of the small parts were well cast, including Justin Theroux as Detective Zito, Barry Shabaka Henley as Lt. Castillo, and John Hawkes as a confidential informant. We had some issues, however, with other casting choices-- I felt John Ortiz was too lightweight as the drug kingpin whose jealousy sparks a murderous betrayal, and Chinese actress Gong Li (Memoirs of a Geisha, Farewell My Concubine, Raise the Red Lantern)? Her accent is nearly indecipherable, despite multiple credited dialog coaches. I never really felt any actual passion between Gong Li and Colin Farrell. After a few scenes, I started casting other "exotic" actresses in my head for the role: Franka Potente? Too young. Michelle Yeoh? Too old. Monica Bellucci? Not brainy enough. Emmanuelle BĂ©art, Audrey Tautou? Too French.

I can't give this movie an A grade because the story doesn't break any new ground from the TV show, and is a little threadbare in spots. B plus... (Arlington Capitol Theater)

NOTE:If you have not been watching the reruns of the original series (1984-89) on TV Land, you have been missing out on some prime mid-80s nostalgia!

August 18, 2006

Snakes on a Plane

snakesSoaP delivers exactly what it promises-- lots of muthafarking snakes on a muthafarking plane! With no pretensions of meaning, class, or talent, this movie was a pure, focused, intense piece of entertaining garbage. Just to illustrate-- the first to get snakebit on the plane are a couple having sex in the lavatory-- the woman gets bit on the tit. Reminiscent of The Bus That Couldn't Slow Down, without the expensive stunts and special effects. Most of the stunts involved C-list actors pretending to be attacked by CGI snakes. Most of the effects include b-level fake snakes, and lost of gross snakebites: swelling, pus, slime, etc. All SoaP was missing was that one final over-the-top coup de grace, like when Jon Voight is vomited up in Anaconda. I would have had more fun in a packed theater, but strangely, there were only maybe a dozen other patrons at my screening on a Friday evening. Grade: A. (Showcase Cinemas, Randolph)

Other Premise-Describing Movie Titles (both real or imagined)

August 14, 2006

Clerks II

A funny, romantic, and outrageous romp, Clerks 2 is a lot of fun to watch, as a bigger-budget and higher-production-value "remake" of the grainy and cheap (but hilarious) original. Clerks 2 finds Dante and Randal working at a low-rent McDonald's-style fast-food joint "Mooby's", after 10 years at the Quick-Stop. Randal is as dyspeptic and misanthropic as ever, and Dante once again has two women after him. Dante's controlling fiancee Emma (Jennifer Schwalbach, director Kevin Smith's wife), only "loves" Dante because he will make a perfect doormat. Emma's parents are buying them a house in Florida, and installing Dante as a car wash manager. A long life under Emma's thumb awaits Dante, and he's going along because A) He's a pussy, and B) He thinks he's supposed to want to grow up and settle down. Meanwhile, Dante has fallen hard for his Mooby's manager, Becky (Rosario Dawson, and who wouldn't?) who apparently likes Dante for who he is.
Dante and Randal still go on their rambling debates, but Randal has some new adversaries-- the 19-year-old virgin Elias, who loves Jesus almost as much as he loves the Transformers and the Lord of the Rings. Actor Trevor Fehrman nearly steals all his scenes, in a Anthony Michael Hall in Sixteen Candles kind of way. Flaky and earnest, naive but not dumb, Elias sticks up for Optimus Prime, Jesus, and Frodo with equal passion, and without losing faith under a barrage of insults from Randal, who fears this will be his new best friend once Dante leaves town.
The relationship between Dante and Randal, and Dante and Becky, both feel strong and genuine, and the funny diatribes strike home. Randal's argument against Lord of the Rings, in favor of Star Wars, sounds promising, but falls very flat. I don't believe that Randal would hate LOTR, and I don't believe Kevin Smith does either, especially since Episodes 1, 2, and 3 devauled the Star Wars property in the last decade. Much stronger is Randal's continuing confusion of Anne Frank and Helen Keller, and his vigorous defense of a racial slur he insists isn't racial at all.
It's interesting to note what has changed between Kevin Smith's homegrown debut Clerks in 1994, and this 2006 sequel. Brian O'Halloran and Jeff Anderson's acting has improved, thank God. Smith has the budget for color film this time, showing off Dante's piercing green eyes (he's still an "ugly CHUD", but a CHUD with green eyes) and the garish Day-Glo color scheme of Mooby's. The soundtrack is much better- Talking Heads, Smashing Pumpkins, and Soul Asylum are featured well, and the dance sequence is set to "ABC" from the Jackson Five. Ah, yes, the dance sequence-- taking place roughly where the hockey game was in the first movie (both in time and place-- Dante and Becky dance on the roof), the dance sequence is fun and totally random.
Something which hasn't changed is the total lack of background action. I know Mooby's is supposed to be a lousy restaurant, but you hardly ever see anyone in the restaurant-- you only see extras when they are part of the plot. Would it be so hard to stage some of the behind-the-counter action with the dining area in the background, and hire some extras to add realism? I suspect Smith shot this movie in a vacant Burger King, and unfortunately, it looks like the main cast is totally alone in there until suddenly, diners pop up. Perhaps this is a symptom of a larger problem- Smith has never known where to put a camera. You're not supposed to be thinking about camera position while watching a movie, but even in the simplest two-person dialog scenes, I found myself wondering why he shot it like that. David Klein has been the Director of Photography on Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy, and fifteen movies and TV shows I've never heard of. I appreciate Smith's loyalty to his friends, but I suspect he is valuing friendship over talent.
Certainly an improvement over the original, if slightly less funny. A minus. (Somerville Theater)

August 8, 2006

109: American Talk Show Rest Stop

The Cover: my wife and our friends looked sorta like a rock band in this photo I snapped on the street after seeing "The Daily Show" live in the summer of 2006. This visit also informed the title, based on the Phil Ayoub track "American Highway Rest Stop":
  1. A Life Of Illusion - the opening titles song from The Forty-Year-Old Virgin by Joe Walsh
  2. Just Pretend - The Bens (Folds, Lee, and I can't remember the third?)
  3. Put Your Records On - Corinne Bailey Rae;
  4. Right Time,Wrong Place - Bonnie Raitt and BB King
  5. Hearts For Sale - The Rolling Stones (a song I nearly forgot from Steel Wheels)
  6. The Edge Of Forever - This Dream Academy song is from the soundtrack of Ferris Bueller's Day Off, when Ferris and Sloane say goodbye at the end of the day
  7. Break (A mashup of The Beastie Boys over Queen's "I Want To Break Free"
  8. Listen (A mashup of "Shake Your Rump", "Root Down", and "Radio Ga Ga"
  9. If You Talk Too Much - People In Planes (I saw this CD advertised in a TV commercial, of all places, and I liked this song. I bought the CD on sale at Target for $4.99)
  10. Closer To You - Liz Phair
  11. Sunday Morning - Maroon Five
  12. Day Tripper - The Beatles - with a false start included, and no fadeout
  13. Always The Last To Know - Del Amitri
  14. American Highway Rest Stop - My friend Robert is a fan of Phil Ayoub, so he came up to Cambridge from NYC to see Phil at a CD release party, and Robert invited me along.
  15. I Know There's Something Going On (I heard this song on the PA system at a restaurant, and I remembered the song but had no idea who it was. It sounded like Phil Collins on drums, and I was right- it's Frida, one of the ladies from ABBA, and her sole solo single hit)
  16. September - Earth Wind and Fire
  17. Sexx Laws - Beck
  18. Rockin' Down The Highway - The Doobie Brothers
  19. Point of Know Return - Kansas
  20. Feel Flows - The Beach Boys song from the closing credits of "Almost Famous"

August 4, 2006

Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby

talladegaI first heard about this movie last year. I read somewhere that the "pitch" for this movie was simply "Will Ferrell as a NASCAR driver". I thought it had lots of potential. A few months later, my expectations were lowered by some underwhelming TV commericals. Those low expectations were blown away by this overly funny NASCAR comedy from the team which brought us Anchorman. Ferrell and director Adam McKay worked with a framework of a story (the rise and fall and rebirth of a single-minded NASCAR driver) and shot every scene with an infinite number of comedy permutations. After shooting was complete, McKay had the unenviable task of making a movie out of the results, without looking like the gag reel at the end of the Cannonball Run movies. The results are fantastic-- I am sure they could re-release the movie with all-new jokes for every scene and it would be equally funny.

I would like to single out for praise John C. Reilly, who has been funny before (Boogie Nights and The Good Girl come to mind), but never as sweet and goofy as Ricky Bobby's whipping boy Cal Naughton Jr, aka "The Magic Man". Possibly saving this movie from a B- or C+ is Sacha Baron Cohen as Ricky Bobby's gay French nemesis, Jean Girard. He works his Clouseau-style French accent and completely non-sequitir bon mots ("Hakuna Matata, beetches!") for the ultimate in comedy effect. A guy with a funny French accent is always funny. I almost take Gary Cole for granted-- he works the long-lost father (think Robert Duvall in Days of Thunder, except a drunken thief) for every joke possible. We especially appreciated his drunken rants when getting kicked out of an Applebee's, and Ricky's junior high school...

One of the unfortunate side effects of the "shoot 1,000 jokes" method of moviemaking is that some characters inadvertently get the short end. Amy Adams may have had a Nicole Kidman-in-Days-Of-Thunder-type role in the screenplay, but in the final cut, she is reduced to two brief appearances in the first hour of the movie, then one very funny monologue at the end of the movie. Another character who must have had more meaty scenes deleted is Ricky's wife Carley Bobby (Leslie Bibb). She is in many scenes of the movie, but there isn't one big meaty part which showcases her.

I have a problem in principle with making a movie by hanging a bunch of funny scenes on a bare bones storyline, but in practice, I loved it. A minus. (AMC Fenway, with Emily, George & Mandy, Amy, Phil, and friends)

August 2, 2006

The Goonies

gooniesA slice of tween-age nostalgia for some, The Goonies is a suburban, subterranean adventure story, created by three of the most potent filmmakers of the 1980s: Screenwriter Chris Columbus (who had just written Gremlins), Steven Spielberg, who wrote the story and exec produced, and co-producer/director Richard Donner (Superman 1 and 2, The Omen, and Ladyhawke.)
I had only seen the movie all the way through once or twice before, so I didn't appreciate it in the same way that Em did (she had the VHS tape on a continuous loop as a child). I thought it was occasionally amusing and completely harmless. I really appreciated the location shooting for "Astoria Oregon"-- all the aboveground scenes have a wonderful rainy, foggy look. I also appreciated the foul language-- the kids say "shit" over and over, which felt authentic to me. Speaking of dialog, Eve pointed out the many scenes where all the kids are talking/yelling at once. While this is a realistic depiction of the way teenagers talk (unlike Chris Columbus's Harry Potter movies, for example), it's also grating and incomprehensible. The movie also has no ending-- they find the pirate treasure, the Fratellis arrive, and then the cave collapses and they all escape.
The score by Dave Grusin (Tootsie, Heaven Can Wait, The Goodbye Girl) feels simplistic, crude, and half-baked. (Brattle Theater with Em, Amy, Eve, and Brenda)