Sunday, July 30, 2006

Miami Vice

A No Contact Order has been issued for pastels in the new Miami Vice...

After several recent misfires in the "TV to Bigscreen" genre (Charlie's Angels, Mod Squad, Dukes of Hazzard, anyone?), it took a top-notch director like Michael Mann to strike gold with Miami Vice. This was undoubtedly helped by the fact that Mann executive produced the original TV series and already had an eye for the sleek, neon-infused nightlife which fueled the premise of two undercover vice squad officers hauling in the kingpins of the drug underground in Miami. Mann updates his baby, however, and makes the film's characters resemble very little of the Crockett and Tubbs of Don Johnson and Phillip Michael Thomas fame. Whereas there was some sparkle of charisma between the television versions of these characters, Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell have been turned down to just one notch above comatose. Not that this is a bad thing- living your life as someone else and working with some pretty horrible people in an effort to bring them down has to sap some of the sparkle out of life. These guys are ragged, tired, and cynical.

We are plunged immediately into the on-duty lives of Crockett and Tubbs, on a stake-out in a trendy Miami nightclub, natch. They are pulled away from the case when an old informant contacts them in a frenzy about a joint-agency (FBI, DEA, ATF) case he'd been helping out on gone sour. The FBI agent in charge played by Ciaran Hinds (recently in Munich) asks Crockett and Tubbs to take over the case due to the fact that the Miami PD was the only agency not in on the sting. From that point on, we are taken from the streets of Miami to Cuidad del Este in South America, and from this point the plot becomes a bit more confusing.

There were parts in Miami Vice where I simply did not know what was going on, my interest in the film only being held by the certainty that the "good guys" were going to eventually going to have to fight it out with the "bad guys" and that one of the "good guys" (in this case, Crockett) was going to fall for the main bad guy's girl- Isabella, played by Chinese actress Gong Li in perhaps the biggest struggle with the English language I've heard in a long time.

Also holding my interest and in fact mesmerizing me were the film's visuals. Michael Mann has a gift for putting artistry in every shot, and his digital cinemaphotography catches night scenes like nothing else. The streetlights are washed out, and dark blues and grays are predominant. Even though Miami Vice is not quite in the same class as the virtuoso predecessors Heat and Collateral, it has that same look and mood that make this director's films captivating. Sound is also a great factor here, particularly when the shooting of very big guns begins, and there are moments in these sequences in which the film more than earns its R rating. There is also a scene near the end as several vice officers stand in the midst of a stand-off in a trailer-park meth lab, and actress Elizabeth Rodriguez utters a line and follows it with something that will make you want to burst out in applause. Trust me, you'll know it when you see it.

Miami Vice is not perfect; The plot lags in spots and is too convoluted in mumbling language. There is also a glaring lack of complexities on the part of the villain and his relationship with the protagonist that is so often a mainstay of Mann's films. I am still recommending Miami Vice, however, because it literally pops with tension, and the visual artistry brought too the party is worth the price of admission all by itself.

No one can craft a gritty crime drama quite like , Michael Mann, and even one of his lesser efforts is still a sheer pleasure to watch.

Gouda's Final Grade: B

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Monster House

This house has an appetite...

No childhood is complete without the "scary house" in the neighborhood, or the crazy old coot who hates children, yelling at all passersby to "stay off the lawn!!". Imaginations are slippery things, and at no time in our lives are our grips tighter on them than before puberty, the time before those wacky hormones rob us of our sense of wonder and make us start acting "grown up". Monster House captures this magic and slams it into the viewers with a nice little bang.

We begin by meeting DJ, a smart but nerdy little kid who spends almost all of his spare time spying on his neighbor across the street, the curmudgeonly Mr. Nebbercracker (voiced by Steve Bucemi), who chases away any children who dare step on his lawn; the toys that are left behind also become his sole property. When DJ's chubby but lovable friend Chowder loses his basketball in Nebbercracker's front yard, the old man literally blows a gasket and eventually has to be hauled away in an ambulance, seemingly dead. This is when Nebbercracker's abode offically comes to life, gobbling up any living and non-living item that encroaches onto its premesis, including small dogs and large adults.

The two boys are joined by Jenny, a neighborhood prep school attendee selling Halloween candy. After her near-encounter with the house's cavernous belly, she and the two boys hatch a plan (after consulting with "Skull", the local nerd voiced hilariously by Napoleon Dynamite's Jon Heder) to snuff out the flaming "heart" of the house with waterguns. Their mission is particularly urgent given that it's Halloween night, and all of the candy-hungry neighborhood children will become free snacks for the monstrous abode.

Monster House is a funny, exciting romp brought to us by producer Robert Zemeckis, who directed another recent childhood classic, Polar Express. The movie uses the same animation technique whereby real actors are overlayed with the animation, making for an almost unsettling, but hard to look away from, visual feast. This film uses that technique much more seamlessly, and its nothing short of a joy to look at.

As a stern warning to parents who are looking to take their young children to the latest animated hit, I do not recommend this film for kids younger than age 10. There is some content and imagery that would be nothing short of nightmare-inducing for preschoolers or those with a tendency to become frightened by houses that eat people. But rest assured, those children with strong sensibilities and parents alike will enjoy this fantastic tale, told in a no-holds-barred way and with a sinister form of humor that is a rarity in the age of fart jokes.

Gouda's Final Grade: A-

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

Pumpin' Jack Smash

Trilogies all seem to share a common trait. The first movie is "WOW! That was great! Gimme More!" The second movie is "Hmmmm... very interesting!". And the third movie tends to bring it all home with a "Holy Crap!!" The second installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean trio, Dead Man's Chest, captures that middle sentiment, only it's a "Hmmm... WOW!" The "hmmmm" in this case being the first half of the film. I'll let you guess where the "WOW" belongs.

That is not to say that Dead Man's Chest is boring. Gore Verbinski's swashbuckling adventure brings a lot of story to the table. A lot. But dare I say it's refreshing to have an action film that is not driven by action alone, but by the characters. They never fail to keep the film interesting, and even when the movie lulls a little in the beginning, we are rarely bored.

The movie begins with Elizabeth Swan (Kiera Knightley) waiting in the rain for her wedding to begin, only to learn that her groom, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) has been arrested for his exploits in the previous film: aiding the escape of Captain Jack Sparrow from the gallows. Both he and Elizabeth are thrown in jail until the deliciously evil Lord Beckett (Tom Hollander) of the East India Trading Company offers Will Turner a chance at his freedom by tracking down Captain Jack Sparrow and acquiring the Captain's compass, which has more value than we ever could have expected.

We are reunited with Sparrow aboard his ship the Black Pearl, and he has just come in possession of the drawing of a key that is supposed to open a chest belonging to Davy Jones, pirate captain and commander of souls of the deep. Sparrow is indebted to Jones for the resurrection of the Black Pearl, and Sparrow hopes to avoid repaying this debt by coming in possession of the mysterious contents of Jones' chest to use as leverage. Depp's performance lacks a little of the luster of the original film, but he's still a treat to watch, and the novelty of his swaggering slur has not yet worn off. It should hold up for one more film.

From this point, I will leave the rest for the viewer to experience by actually watching the film. There is adrenaline-pumping thrill (island cannibals) after adrenaline-pumping thrill (an amazing sword fight on a water wheel) in this sequel, and there is so much of the story line to digest that I will keep this review relatively short by not revealing too much, but if there is any question of whether or not Dead Man's Chest is a worthy trip to the theater, the answer is a resounding YES.

Among some of the jaw-dropping elements you will encounter- the barnacle-encrusted crew of Davy Jones' ship, The Flying Dutchman. Davy Jones himself is a special-effects wonder to behold, with a giant lobster claw for a hand, and a seamless CGI-generated octupus for a face. It was so convincing that I never would have guessed that it was all computer effects if I didn't already know going in. We are also introduced to Will's father, Bill "Bootstraps" Turner (played brilliantly by an almost unrecognizable Stellan Skarsgaard), who made a pact with Davy Jones long ago and serves as a crewmate on The Dutchman.

And let us not forget the Kraken. The giant tentacled beast of the deep that rips ships apart at the commanding of Davy Jones. I think it's safe to say after seeing this film that if I don't see another tentacle until next May (when the third and final installment of Pirates comes out), I'll be a happy woman.

If I have one complaint about this film, it's that it suffers from the first Pirate's ailment: unnecessary length. I think Gore Verbinski loves his movies and his characters so much that he wouldn't think of introducing any film to the cutting room floor. Sure, Verbinski is no Peter Jackson in terms of epic length, but for this class of film, I think 2 and a half hours is excessive. 2 would have been perfect.

Still, I am recommending Pirates as the "Hmmmm... WOW" precursor to the "Holy Crap!!" finale that the third film will undoubtedly be, particularly based on its last hour, where the story really gets going and the brilliant swordplay and the Kraken take center stage.

So in regards to the scurvy crew of the Black Pearl and The Flying Dutchman, I have to say they were real treat to watch. They are, in fact, what summer action movies are all about. But because a little less can actually be more, I hope that Gore Verbinski can learn to become a little more acquainted with a pair of scissors for the third and final installment in May.

Gouda's Final Grade: B+