Sunday, July 30, 2006

Miami Vice

I just got back from seeing Miami Vice, the year's first truly great film. This is Michael Mann stripping away any attempt to do a traditionally structured narrative and just indulging in his greatest strength, the ability to create an engulfing mood and letting the viewer get lost in it. It's a huge budget action film, but the style is that of an art film, with constant handheld camera and digital grain lending the film a sense of realism that is absent from virtually every other summer blockbuster.

The opening shot of the film dumps you right into the world. There's no character or plot setup because it's not really needed. These guys are undercover vice cops, that's all you need to know. This club isn't the usual highly glamourous Hollywood nightclub, it's more realistic. To some extent this hurts because the nightclub doesn't ascend into the realm of film fantasy, rather it stays down in the real world where video screens are slightly grainy and not everyone dances that well. The music flows nicely though, going from Jay-Z/Linkin Park to an instrumental version of Goldfrapp's 'Strict Machine.'

Watching this film, the first thing that jumps out at you is the digital photography. I know a lot of people are going to crack on the film for its slightly grainy look, and at times the shots just aren't as aesthetically pleasing as they might have been. However, I think on the whole the digital photography works wonders for the film. The camera moves with a freedom that I've rarely seen in film based movies, at least the ones that aren't by Wong Kar-Wai. Mann takes full advantage of the potential of digital to shoot night scenes in low key, realistic lighting and also to move his camera all around, giving us some of the most dynamic, exciting cinematography I've seen in a long time. There's an energy to the film that I feel just wouldn't be possible with traditional film, and if shooting digital freed Mann to create that energy, I'd gladly sacrifice the aesthetic quality of the image.

The way I look at film vs. digital is like this. Imagine you were doing a painting. There's a regular paintbrush and then there's a twentypound paintbrush that makes better looking brushstrokes. You could use this twenty pound brush and get a better looking brush, but it would make it a lot harder to paint. Your options would be limited and I'd rather have the chance to do whatever I wanted with the little brush. That's what digital is like, it gives you more opportunity for experimentation.

The thing that makes this film great is the way that it doesn't give you much background on these characters' lives, rather it puts you in their world and their emotions. If someone was to ask me what Sonny's character traits are, I wouldn't really know. But when he's watching Isabella leaving on the boat at the end of the film, I was feeling exactly what he was feeling. The film puts you in the numb world of an undercover operative and because you experience what they're feeling, it's very easy to empathize with Sonny and Rico, even though we don't really know who they are.

If the film does have some flaws, they're mainly in the opening section. Some of the dialogue was a bit clumsy and the actors didn't seem to be in their characters yet. However, I was still liking the film because I was loving the way Mann shot their car pursuing Alonso and the general nighttime aesthetic of the film.

The character setup here is very economical. The intimacy of the shower scene with Rico and Trudy tells us everything we need to know about their relationship. You could fault the film for not giving us more scenes with the two of them, considering the importance their relationship has to one of the big setpieces of the film. However, this isn't a film about building a world. It's about slipping you into something that's already happening and letting the viewer struggle to keep up with everything that's going on.

The cinematography and music had me engaged right from the start, but the film really takes off when Gong Li's Isabella shows up. I was predisposed to liking her since I've seen her in so many Asian films, however the admiration that her character earns during the film transcends that predisposition. Her relationship with Sonny is the emotional core of the film, and like Neal's relationship with Eady in Heat, we want it to work, but know that it can't. So, it's all about enjoying the moments that they're together.

The scene where they ride a boat to Cuba is one of the highlights of the film. Gong Li's sunglasses are great, and the use of Moby's 'One of These Mornings' is perfect. Mann cuts between closeups of the two actors, building tension with each cut, we're aware of the attraction between them and are just waiting for them to finally get together. The scenes in Cuba are wonderfully filmed, isolating the two of them from the world outside. Isabella cries when they're having sex, she knows that a real relationship isn't possible in her world, so no matter how much she's attracted to him, there's no future. Gong Li still has some issues speaking English, but she still gives a wonderful performance, creating the most emotionally engaging character in the film. Colin Farrell also nails this stuff, this is a great followup to the emotional territory he explored in The New World.

I've already mentioned it a couple of times, but the music in this film was phenomenal. Mann rarely uses music in the way that score is traditionally used, to guide the audience's emotions through a scene. Rather, he uses the music to build an atmosphere that the audience can sink into. Two notable passages are the boat trip to the trailer park and the final cue of the film.

The film is enjoyable on multiple levels, you can watch the story and characters and get caught up in their drama, or you can just watch it as a piece of visual art, enjoying the combination of visuals and music. I got lost in the world of the film, I stayed for a lot of the end credits, and when I finally stepped out of the theater it was like stepping into another world. That's the sign of a great film, when your reality is superceded by the reality that's on screen.

Another really notable acheivement for the film is the sound effects. I've never heard gun shots on screen that sounded like this. The sound really ups the intensity off the action. Mann is an expert at staging big gun battles, just check out Heat to prove that. The thing that stands out about the fights here is the brutality of the violence. People are shot very quickly and the fact that the characters are so nonchalant about it tells us everything we need to know about their world. When Jose quickly kills Isabella's bodyguard, we know that it's going down. Gina's quick execution of Trudy's captor is another notable moment of shockingly quick violence.

The final gunfight is another highlight, working both as a great action sequence and a way of building suspense for the final resolution of Isabella and Sonny's relationship. Her rage after she finds out he's a police officer is fantastic. The final shootout was shot in a really shaky way, with some shots seeming right out of cops. This whole final sequence looks great, with some notable visuals being the blue light on the white bridge, the lights of the city at night and the shaky cam as the action breaks out.

The film concludes not with any sort of rousing denouement. Jose may be dead, but the cartel lives on. We get no sense of what this did in the overall scheme of things, because ultimately that doesn't matter much to these people. They just do their jobs and deal with the costs of those jobs. For Rico, it means Trudy being horribly injured, for Sonny it means giving up love. I mentioned the final music cue before, but it deserves to be noted again. There's a profound sadness as Sonny watches Isabella leaving, both actors say so much with their face. From there, Sonny goes bac to the hospital, he'll continue to do his duty, even though he knows that it'll cost him the chance at a normal personal life. It's a very bold move to end the film on such an unresolved, somber note, but it fits perfectly with the world that Mann built here. We may want Sonny and Isabella to be together, but we need them to be separated because any attempt to stay together just wouldn't be true to the film we'd seen.

This film reminds me a bit of Domino, in the way that it generally puts the narrative aside and instead chooses to focus on creating a filmic experience. Domino succeeds because of the sheer pop excess of everything that happens. This film works more like an action Wong Kar-Wai piece, what's happening isn't important, it's more about what the characters are feeling, building a mood to get lost in. Even though it's brutal and harsh at times, I think it's the warmest Mann film I've seen, and this works as a wonderful companion piece to Heat. Both films are about the sacrifices that professionals must make to do their jobs. It's impossible to be a professional and still have a fulfilling personal life, and the arc of the film is about the characters coming to terms with what they've sacrificed.

I can't reccomend this film highly enough. I was really energized at the end, happy to see a film so stylistically bold and emotionally engaging. This is the sort of piece that couldn't work in any other medium, it uses the ability of film to create a unique world, to put the viewer in a feeling. It's not perfect, but the flaws are insigifcant compared to the film's overall quality.

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