Thursday, 13 November 2014

For Noirvember: "Time is luck:" Some Thoughts on Michael Mann's "Miami Vice"

Spoilers Ahead

When Michael Mann's Miami Vice- based on the 1984-89 series he executive produced- was released in 2006, the reaction from audiences and critics was mixed. It's not too surprising that the film didn't completely hit off with audiences or critics. For one, The film doesn't satisfy genre expectations of a crime thriller. There's not a lot of action, the story is slow paced in many sections, Farrell and Foxx trade nary a one liner, and most of the characters come across as flat and uninteresting. But since its release, the film has been embraced by critics and toted as a masterpiece. I'm not quite prepared to give the film that label; but I do feel the film is a beautiful and singular work that only could've been directed by Michael Mann.

I think Mann used the title so he could then subvert audiences' expectations of what a big screen Miami Vice remake would look and feel like. While it does borrow elements from the series, this is not a homage to the show. There are no cheeky references and it's not interested in being meta like the 21 Jump Street films that came later. Mann and his actors play things straight. Mann uses digital photography (As he did with 2004's Collateral and 2009's Public Enemies) to create a real world atmosphere and puts us in the midst of the action throughout the entire film. The movie exists between the real and the romanticized, resulting in something truly sublime. Instead of a throwback to the style of the 80s, Mann forges a visual landscape that's thoroughly modern but also transcends its era and becomes timeless.

If haven't seen the film yet then try to get your hands on the theatrical cut. In North America, the director's cut is the only version of the film available. The director's cut begins with a prologue that sets the stage for a prostitution ring bust by Miami police officers Sonny Crockett (Farrell) and Ricardo Tubbs (Foxx). This set-up takes away from the theatrical cut's opening, in which we're shoved right in to the night club, where the bust is to happen, music blaring, the camera giving us close-ups of our main players.

Sonny and Rico soon become involved in a undercover operation to take down a drug cartel. They meet up with Jose Yero (John Ortiz), the second in command to the cartel's leader, Archangel de Jesus Montoya (Luis Tosar).  Montoya's financial adviser and lover is Isabella (Gong Li), with whom Sonny becomes romantically involved.

After seeing the film three times, I still couldn't tell you every aspect of the plot. But with many noir and noir-inspired films, I don't think the plot is what really matters. Mann uses the plot to further create a feeling of authenticity. When characters on screen about what's going on, we feel we're getting a first hand view at the way these kinds of operations go down. What really matters to Mann is the existential dilemmas for the characters, which I find is also the most noir aspect of the film. As Sonny and Isabella begin their love affair, they're both very conscious it has no future. Again, this is a very noir-like sentiment. Noir characters exist in a fatalistic world where there's usually only one outcome, and it's usually tragic.

Ricardo and fellow police officer Trudy Joplin (Naomie Harris) are also in a romantic relationship. While their relationship has a more optimistic future, Trudy is kidnapped by the Aryan Brotherhood who is working with Montoya's cartel. Trudy is rescued but then nearly killed by a bomb detonated by Yero. This incident makes real to Rico the fact this job can get Trudy killed. Rico tells Sonny: You know what gets me. The prospect of her losing her life over this bullshit line of work."  When Sonny asks if that's what Trudy thinks, Rico says "No, it's what I think." It's a nice character moment for Rico, showing his vulnerability but his anger in the face of violence.


While the characters in Miami Vice seem at first glance to be a little flat, after a few viewings they become more textured and interesting than on an initial viewing. The aforementioned scene is an important one in showing the warmth and openness between Crockett and Tubbs. Then there's the scene between the two before the final shootout which Rico asks if Sonny is ready for his relationship with Isabella to end. Sonny says he's "most definitely not ready." That Sonny is able to be this honest- and like Rico earlier, vulnerable- with his partner further highlights the strength of their partnership.

Similar to the noirs of the classic studio era, Miami Vice creates a heightened language of its own. "Why do I get the feeling everyone know we're 15 blocks out?" asks Sonny as he and Rico are on their way to see Yero. "'Cause everyone knows we're 15 blocks out" replies Rico. The film's dialogue is also what helps give the characters texture. One of the best scenes in the film is the first meeting with Yero, in which Sonny and Rico have to convince Yero to use them in the cartel's operations. Sonny and Rico turn the tables on Yero, asking him if he's a cop. And Rico says to Yero: "[W]e didn't come down here to audition for business. Business auditions for us." This scene showcases the tightrope undercover cops have to walk when entering in to this kind of world and working with criminals. And the scene questions how much is this the real Sonny and Rico, and how much is just play acting.

Mann employs music to sell the emotions of the film. A major example is the use of Moby's "One of These Mornings." Mogwi's "Auto-Rock" plays over the final passages of the film and is another example of how the perfect song can enhance the emotion of what's on screen. Miami Vice has what may be one of my favourite closing shots in any film. Sonny comes back to the hospital where Trudy has just woken up from her coma. Sonny has sent Isabella away but there's still hope for Rico and Trudy. The long shot of Sonny entering the hospital is so simple but- with "Auto-Rock playing over it- so sadly beautiful. Just as how the film opened right in the midst of the story, so the story ends just as abruptly, highlighting the matter-of-factness of these people's lives. The fatalism of the story comes not from things ending, but things having to continue on almost without change- but with the memory of what could've been.  

Friday, 7 November 2014

For Noirvember- "Marx wasn't a German, Marx was a Jew:" Some thoughts on Orson Welles' "The Stranger."

Spoilers Ahead

Orson Welles' 1946 film The Stranger takes place in what is- stylistically speaking- a self-contained noirish universe. But its story and theme concern real world events: the Holocaust and Nazi war criminals who hid after the end of World War II. 

Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson), an investigator from the War Crimes Commission, releases a former ally of  the fugitive Nazi Franz Kindler's (Orson Welles) named Konrad  Meinike (Konstatin Shayne) in the hope he'll lead Wilson to Kindler. Wilson follows Meinike to the town of Harper, Connecticut. Kindler has assumed the identity of Charles Rankin, a prep school teacher.  Kindler is to marry Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), the daughter of a Supreme Court Justice Adam Longstreet (Philip Merivale). Kindler hopes his marriage to Mary will offer his further protection against any attempts to reveal his identity.       

The Stranger reminds me of Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt, released three years prior to this film, in which Joseph Cotton plays a serial killer who comes to stay with his family in California. The film was about the juxtaposition of an idyllic town and the monster hiding amongst its people; the fear of evil invading America. The Stranger deals with similar themes but with more historical significance. A Nazi war criminal would be an invader and corrupter of America. But Harper in the perfect place for Kindler to hide, he tells Meinike. Who would look for a Nazi war criminal in a small Connecticut town? Kindler also creates an ideal identity: a kindly teacher who will marry in to a respected family. But Kindler only sees his life as Rankin as temporary; an interlude until there is another war and the Nazis rise again. Kindler is hiding from his past- as film noir characters often do- but he's also ready to embrace his former identity when the time comes. Kinder then kills Meinike to protect his identity.  

Wilson is more of an outsider than Kindler- who has become a intrinsic part of the community. Wilson becomes is the primary suspect, the only suspect in Meinike's murder. Wilson is posing as an antiques collector and one theory is he killed Meinike over a priceless antique. Kindler's false identity makes him part of the community, whereas Wilson's gives him a possible motive for murder. Robinson's rough features makes him feel more like an "other" than Welles' debonair looks.         

In one of the film's pivotal scenes, Wilson has dinner with Kindler and the Longstreets. There is discussion about German culture post WWII. Kindler doesn't believe the German people can be reformed post-Holocaust. Kindler says "The will to freedom has been voiced in every other tongue- ''All men are created equal," liberte, egalite, fraternite- but in German."  This leads Mary's brother Noah (Richard Long) to mention Karl Marx and his quote about the working class starting a revolution. Kindler replies that Marx wasn't German, he was a Jew. This gives Kindler away to Wilson. [W]ho but a Nazi would deny that Karl Marx was a German because he was a Jew?" asks Wilson later. Despite Kindler's best efforts to hide his true identity, this one remark is a subtle but crucial clue to his true self.  It's the smallest thing that can reveal who we truly are.    

What The Stanger is most notable for is its use of footage of the Nazi concentration camps, a very daring scene for what was a mainstream Hollywood film. Wilson shows Mary this footage as he reveals the truth about her husband. Wilson is not only telling Mary her husband is a Nazi but is showing her the reality of who the Nazis were, illustrating something Americans had at the time only heard about. The scene isn't just about Mary's reaction but the audience's as well. Mary refuses to believe Wilson. Wilson tells Mary's father that her denial is about not wanting to believe she could ever love a monster. Mary eventually confronts her husband about his true identity. He attempts to kill her but is prevented by Wilson and Noah.

Kindler's fascination with clocks leads him to repair the timepiece in the town's clock tower, which is where the film's climax occurs. The clock tower has a claustrophobic atmosphere. This is highlighted by Wilson telling Kindler the world closed in on him, then the town, now this clock tower.

While Welles considered The Stranger to be his least favourite among his own films, it was in fact the only film of his to be a box office success upon release. It does feel more audience friendly film than some of Welles' other films, it's style- while Wellesian- is in tone with other noirs of the time. But despite being a conventional noir thriller in some ways, The Stranger is still an important and daring work in the Welles' oeuvre. It wasn't afraid to confront the subject of the Holocaust and the aftermath of the war. It blends the stylized world of film noir while injecting it with footage of the locations of actual atrocities. The Stranger is a splendidly made film which has a social significance that's still relevant today.