What was it about the NBC TV show "Miami Vice" that created such a fashion-quake back in the 1980s? That made men in even the most un-Miami-like parts of the country start going about sockless in suave white loafers and rumpled linen pants, with the sleeves of their newly-bought shot-silk blazers jammed up around their elbows? Was it the series' burnished neon glow, its moody visual rhythms, the pastel overload of the Deco cocaine mecca at the heart of its concept? Was it the synthesized propulsion of the soundtrack? (Jan Hammer's percolating title theme became a #1 chart hit.) Or was it simply the primal guy-fantasy of two undercover vice-squad cops, played by Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas, zipping around town busting drug lords while at the same time enjoying such coke-trade accouterments as live-in yachts, speed-king power boats and super-pricey sports cars?
It was all of those things, of course. And so it's very strange that, apart from the basic buddy-stud stuff, which no longer seems as much fun as it did before, none of those elements plays a substantial part in the new "Miami Vice" movie. The picture is grim and grotty, the characters joyless, the story confusing and the dialogue sometimes impenetrable. It may share a title with the earlier TV series (whose producer, Michael Mann, directed the film), but there any resemblance effectively ends.
This time out, the two detectives, Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs, are played by Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx. Foxx is a smart actor, and he brings some emotional weight to his character. But Farrell, although he looks suitably fetching in longish, blondish hair and occasional sternum-baring shirts, can't make much sense of a character that, in motivational terms, doesn't make much sense.
The movie begins with the boys rousting a pimp in a Miami nightclub. This doesn't amount to much, and they move on to huddle with one of their informers, who's babbling hysterically about a gang of neo-Nazis who've wiped out his family. (There's an expertly mounted sequence here, when the despondent informer walks out in front of a speeding truck; we hear no sound that would indicate his sudden flattening, but then, from overhead, we briefly see a smear of blood trailing out from beneath the truck's back bumper -- a great shot.) Next, Crockett and Tubbs don hoods and bust into a drug warehouse, overpowering the many bruisers resident inside. Lots of flailing, shooting, whatever.
At this point, an FBI guy named Fujima (played, for no discernible reason, by the estimable Ciarán Hinds, who's Irish) shows up to discuss a problem: There's a high-level leak in the federal drug-enforcement hierarchy, and it needs plugging. He recruits Crockett and Tubbs for the job. Posing as big-time drug dealers themselves, they take off for Paraguay to root around in the legendarily lawless Tri-Border Area (the actual place -- and as scuzzy as you might hope). The international drug cartel they're seeking to infiltrate is walled-off behind very high-tech security, but they score a meeting with its top enforcer, Yero (John Ortiz). They also encounter a sleek Cuban-Chinese woman named Isabella (Gong Li), who, along with being the consort of the cartel's shadowy boss, may also be the brains of the outfit, coolly mapping out drug shipments, toting up the numbers and generally being bad-ass in a very well-tailored way.
Crockett falls for Isabella. Back in Miami, he hits on her to have a drink with him. She suggests they hop in his boat and go get one -- in Havana. (This would seem like a difficult thing to do for a couple of reasons, but as I say, whatever.) There follows a sex scene (R-rated, and mild-R at that), and Crockett starts thinking maybe he'd like to switch sides and join Isabella in the drug-smuggling business. (I didn't buy this. He's only known this woman for a few days. And how could he think her famously murderous boyfriend, with whom he'd also have to be keeping company, wouldn't be a little irritated?)
The action shifts to Haiti. Crockett sprouts a wee ponytail. There's a multi-thug shootout in which Tubbs blows a very large hole in some guy's chest, which is pretty rousing. There's a lot of talking, too, and when it takes place on windy afterdecks or in the open cockpits of speedboats tearing down a Miami canal, it's virtually inaudible. Which may be just as well, because some of the lines we do hear are pretty windy to begin with: "Time is luck." "These guys kill everything." "Do you look like your mother?"
Michael Mann has made some excellent movies. (His 1986 "Manhunter" remains one of the best two serial-killer thrillers to date.) But he takes this familiar top-cops adventure a lot more seriously than its larky structure warrants. And he strips away so much of the old TV show's endearing glitz that there's nothing left to enjoy. The picture is also laced with long, lingering shots of things that aren't worth lingering over. As it passed the two-hour mark, I began to fear the ending might never actually end. That it finally did was one of the movie's highlights.
'Little Miss Sunshine': Laugh Trek
Sweet, smart and subversively funny are not terms that can often be applied to a single movie. But this long-gestating, ultra-low-budget indie comedy merits the accolades with which it's already been greeted on the film-fest circuit.
It's about the Hoovers, an extended family living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The Hoovers are a mess. Richard, the father (Greg Kinnear), is a motivational speaker with a nine-step self-improvement program that practically nobody can be motivated to sign up for. (Among its dubious mottoes: "Don't apologize -- it's a sign of weakness.") There's a sullen teenage son named Dwayne (Paul Dano) who so hates the world -- and especially his goofy family -- that he's stopped speaking and communicates exclusively by notepad. (His worldview: "Sometimes I wish I could just go to sleep till I was 18 and skip all this crap.") There's also Richard's elderly dad (Alan Arkin), who's devoting his twilight years to snorting heroin and stockpiling porn. ("I'm old!" he explains.)
Richard's wife, the unflappable Sheryl (Toni Collette), has made a long-suffering domestic career out of humoring these irascible characters; now, to make things even more interesting, she's brought home from the hospital her brother, Frank (Steve Carell), a bearded academic -- in fact, "the number-one Proust scholar" in the country. Frank is recovering from a suicide attempt provoked by the desertion of his gay lover, who left him to take up with a hated rival -- the country's number-two Proust scholar.
The only unwavering ray of light in this miserable ménage is 7-year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin), a plump, cheerful sweetie whose pretty little head never harbors a negative thought. When word arrives that she has qualified to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine talent pageant in faraway Redondo Beach, California, Olive's elders band together, for once, and determine to drive her there in their battered yellow van.
The trip is of course a disaster. They immediately blow a gear and wind up having to push-start the shabby vehicle cross-country. Then the horn gets stuck in the always-on position, adding an extra dash of nerve-frazzlement. As the family rattles along, several more awful things happen, each of them hilarious. But the most awful thing of all turns out to be the Little Miss Sunshine pageant itself. There we witness every showbiz-kid horror ever perpetrated by the stage mothers of the world -- as well as what has to be the most terrifyingly smarmy MC in the history of small-time social enterprises (a virtuoso performance by Matt Winston).
The unique charm of this laugh-out-loud movie, directed by the veteran husband-and-wife video team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, is in its vivid character details and its boldly absurd situations. The actors have a marvelous ensemble spirit, especially Toni Collette -- the very soul of maternal stoicism -- and Steve Carell, whose careful underplaying of the mournful Frank makes the character even funnier than his wonderfully woebegone lines already are. And little Abigail Breslin, with her sweet chipmunk cheeks and her great big glasses, is that rarest of cute kids -- she actually makes you want to hug her, rather than shoot her. She's a winner.
'Brothers of the Head': Double Troubled
A movie about a pair of Siamese twins who are turned into a pop group by a seedy band manager, but who then revolt into punk-rock stardom, is a movie we definitely want to see, right? Well, you'd think. What you actually make of "Brothers of the Head" may depend on the expectations you bring to it.
Those utterly unfamiliar with the mid-'70s British music scene may wonder if the film is relating a true story. It's not. (It's based on a 1977 book by sci-fi writer Brian Aldiss.) Those hoping for edgy sensation may expect the brothers, Tom and Barry Howe, to be played by actual Siamese twins. They're not. (The actors, Harry and Luke Treadaway, are identical twins, but they're not conjoined.) Do these details matter? Maybe not. The movie conveys a good, sweaty sense of the musical moment when back-to-basics English pub rock, typified by such bands as Brinsley Schwarz and Ducks Deluxe, started spinning out of control into punk. The songs in the film, written by Clive Langer, once a guitarist and songwriter with the artsy mid-'70s Liverpool band Deaf School, have a period flavor. And the Treadaway brothers, good-looking lads making their first movie appearance, bring emotional empathy to their roles, which are bound up in Siamese-twin sex, drug and frontman issues.
But the story (Siamese twins? Fronting a punk band?) would seem to cry out for full-on black-comedy treatment -- it's too wild just to be played straight. However, the co-directors, Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, have rejected the idea of turning it into a "mockumentary," à la "This Is Spinal Tap," apparently feeling that that form has become a cliché. (Fulton and Pepe are documentary filmmakers best known for the celebrated "Lost in La Mancha," their 2002 picture about director Terry Gilliam's doomed attempt to make a movie out of "Don Quixote.") So what they've created is a faux documentary that carefully avoids the kind of knowing satire that made "Spinal Tap" a classic, and is tricked out with footage from a fictitious feature film about the brothers by the famously madcap English director Ken Russell (who plays himself, and who might actually have turned the story into a nuttier -- better -- movie.).
The picture doesn't really work for me. The brothers' bizarre saga, presented with no shaping stylization, seems flat and uninvolving. And it's too flamboyantly odd to carry the weight of the dark burden with which it culminates, as if calling attention to some sorrowful social issue. The movie's not bad, but it's a little dull. Which is of course worse.
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