Wednesday, August 09, 2006

World Trade Center (Oliver Stone, 2006)

The message of Oliver Stone’s film of two Port Authority police officers trapped in the rubble of the World Trade Center towers is summed up in its epilogue; there is little to no subtlety or character development to be found; and the subplots are saccharine, melodramatic, or altogether unnecessary. And none of this really matters.

What does matter is the simple earnestness in the performances of Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena as McLouglin and Jimeno; the brutal claustrophobia that engulfs any scene within the mangled wreckage; and the stark desperation from Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal as the wives. The film begins simply enough with an ordinary day for the Port Authority police and New York City in general. Friends joke, cars in traffic honk, officers walk their beats. Once the terrible tragedy occurs (tactfully off-screen), the world becomes black and white, and there is no room for subtlety. The main characters are thrown into a confused rush of victims, bystanders, rescuers, policemen, firemen…the anarchy that resulted from the devastating attack. Their objective is to help out, but before they really can, one of the towers and the entire world collapse around them. Harrowing is the only word for it. World Trade Center is both the loudest and quietest film of the year thus far. The sound design rains destruction and chaos throughout the theater. Screams and anguish flood the tiny open spaces between hunks of twisted wreckage and concrete rubble. Despondency sets in quickly, and McLoughlin and Jimeno make a grave pact to see each other through the calamity. Their helplessly quiet dialogue and struggle to keep conscious are the restrained, human responses to their apocalyptic scenario.

It is here that the main thrust of the film, the parallel stories of the two officers and their families, begins. To call these segments “sentimentalized” or “Hollywoodized” is to miss the straightforward, apolitical impact of the film. The worst has happened, and the families must react. Both families have several children, and one wife is pregnant. Reality provides and transcends clich├ęs. As Maria Bello walks around her house practically in a daze, she imagines her husband fixing the roof, or teaching their son how to do carpentry. Both men hear their wives’ voices and imagine seeing them. Overwrought? Formulaic? Perhaps. But what are they all supposed to be thinking about? I had no direct relation to the tragedy, but during that entire day, every moment that I was not intensely focused on something else, I thought about what had happened. A particularly effective scene in this vein focuses on Gyllenhaal suddenly realizing the banality of shopping in a drug store. Each of these moments felt just about or beyond poignant, perhaps even overtly melodramatic, but life, especially in light of the universality of this event, need not apologize for its inherent drama.

When the film reaches beyond the two men or their immediate families, it falters. A patriotic and religious former Marine (Michael Shannon) seems to symbolize the men and women who signed up following September 11, but his inhuman and emotionless passivity towards duty makes him less than sympathetic. A bizarre vision by Jimeno of Jesus with a water bottle is head-scratching rather than realistically “stranger than fiction.”

But these instances do not take away from the obvious, heartfelt power of all involved, even the otherwise controversial and political Oliver Stone. He (and screenwriter Andrea Berloff) is not out to tell every story of that day, nor to cover its implications, nor to whitewash the catastrophe of that day. His subjective focus on two families’ near tragedy is traumatic but ultimately hopeful that courage and dignity can inspire hope even in the face of such a disaster. Too soon? Hardly. Too sentimental? A film like this could not be.

IMDb page

Friday, August 04, 2006

Miami Vice (Michael Mann, 2006)

The only similarity between the mid-‘80s series “Miami Vice” and its cinematic counterpart is the criticism-turned-credo “style over substance.” But whereas the TV show at least had sunny locales, hip music, and the pastel presences of Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas, Michael Mann’s re-imagined Miami Vice is mired in an incoherent plot, lifeless performances, and outrageous violence covering up for missing dramatic and thematic content.

Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx take over the mantles of “Sonny” Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs with nary a wink or a smile. Never before has either actor been so patently glum or bored. Mann has had success in the past encircling his films around a dangerous, lone wolf figure stalking the modern urban jungle (James Cann in Thief, Robert DeNiro in Heat, Tom Cruise in Collateral), but neither Farrell nor Foxx have the dangerous charisma (or requisite three-dimensional characters) to pull this off. Half-baked girlfriend subplots involving Naomie Harris and Gong Li do nothing to elevate the two heroes above caricatures of cops whose work is their world. The love that blossoms between Farrell and Li especially strains credibility. Am I to believe that this beautiful and savvy businesswoman married to the boss of a Columbian cartel would then be wooed by a stubbly Irish-American thug?

Crockett and Tubbs eventually go undercover to catch the drug smugglers and investigate a mole in the crime squad (a plot thread that is never even resolved), and main villains Luis Tosar and John Ortiz breathe a bit of life into the proceedings. But their nefariousness is constantly undermined by wasted “emotional” scenes between Farrell and Li, and some muddled police procedure that leads to an absurd conclusion. For all of the far-fetched plot twists in Mann’s previous films, they were nearly always involving interesting characters and bravura action sequences. Vice delivers more violence than action, the splattering of red fluids being the only source of bright colors in the movie’s monochromatic world. Once Crockett and Tubbs’ fellow task force agents show up and prove to be handy marksmen, any tension as to the fate of our heroes quickly disappears. Most of Mann’s strengths (masculine characterizations, ferocious and exciting gunplay) become burdensome.

The only spark is provided by Dion Beebe’s HD digital cinematography. The high contrast that brought LA into light and shadow in Collateral turns Miami into a bustling backdrop of blue-gray. The camera searches and hunts for an interesting shot, whether or not that goal is reached. Valiant attempts to render the film compelling only on the surface are futile from the beginning. Hopefully Mann can let sleeping ‘80s cop shows lie and spend more time overcoming this artistic hurdle. I have complete faith he can do it.

IMDb page