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August 4, 2006

I Can Feel It Slumming in the Air Tonight 

Miami ViceAlthough it’s quite understandably one of the most definitive, iconic examples of ’80s pop kitsch, MIAMI VICE is an ideal television series to adapt into a feature film. Strip away the dated pastel fashions and Don Johnson’s perpetual beard stubble, and one’s left with executive producer Michael Mann’s pioneering visual- and music-driven style, a slick template for crime drama that has been aped on the tube and big screen alike for the last twenty years. That Mann has emerged as one of the more individualistic mainstream motion picture directors in those two decades made his return visit to the work and lives of police detectives Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs the rare pre-anointed summer blockbuster with the promise of something more substantial. But it’s the resulting work is an unsatisfying film on either level.

The main gist of the plot here is simple and to the point, not unlike that of an episode of the old show: Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) go undercover to infiltrate a drug smuggling operation; along the way Crockett falls for the right-hand woman (Gong Li)–in a number of respects–to the big boss (Luis Tosar). On paper it’s pretty straightforward, but Mann seems intent on making it as talky, action-light, murky, and uninvolving as possible, with reams of monotonously delivered dialogue about shipping transactions. Not helping matters are the sometimes inscrutable accents, most prominently Gong’s. While hers remains one of the most eloquent faces in all of cinema (and one pivotal wordless scene makes one wonder what would could have been had she not declined the Amy Brenneman role in Mann’s Heat ten years ago) unlike in Memoirs of a Geisha, there are no broad, hyperbolic strokes to this character compensate for her difficulty with the language.

That wouldn’t be so much of an issue if she struck any sparks with Farrell, but one of the major deficiencies in the film is chemistry–not just between Farrell and Gong, but Foxx and his love interest Naomie Harris (as a fellow detective), and, most damaging of all, Foxx and Farrell. I can understand Mann wanting to eschew typical film and TV “buddy” cop relations with this Crockett and Tubbs, but the two here don’t even have a convincing base working partnership. The Foxx-Farrell pairing can best be summed up by the first real Crockett-Tubbs scene in the film: on the rooftop of a club, on the phone… having separate conversations. The two share the frame and the on-set air but nothing else. Mann is still one of the best in the business when it comes to gunplay, and the two key action sequences–a tense sequence in a trailer park and a climactic shoot-’em-up–deliver all the loud, jolting fire and raw bloodshed one expects. But with all the characters being paper-thin ciphers thrown into the shots (in every sense), there’s no sense of stakes nor investment. The same perhaps can be said of Mann when it comes to the whole of this Miami Vice–interested in technical details than creating any soul in the piece.

CG Animated Movie of the Week

The Ant BullyEven if it weren’t the second of three CG animated films to be released in as many weeks, THE ANT BULLY would still feel blandly rote. Warner Bros., producer Tom Hanks, and director John A. Davis (who a few years ago helmed a genuinely unique CG feature in Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius) have gone where many have gone before: all-star “DreamWorks casting,” as I call it (no less than three popular Oscar winners–Julia Roberts, Nicolas Cage, and Meryl Streep–are the A-Listers at the top of the cast list); an ant colony setting (A Bug’s Life and Antz); and–in the ultimate show of laziness or most unfortunate coincidence–as in this past May’s Over the Hedge, villainous exterminator voiced by an actor from Sideways (here, Paul Giamatti; there, Thomas Haden Church). But even with such an air of familiarity, something could have been done to make this adaptation of John Nickle’s book feel more distinctive, and there is an interesting premise to work with: the “ant bully” of the title is actually a much-picked-on kid (voiced by Zach Tyler), who unleashes his anger and frustrations on the ant hill in his front yard; through a magic potion, he is reduced to ant size. The usual lessons about tolerance follow, and they could’ve easily been told with another member of the non-ant insect population and hence all the other expository baggage; and while the animation, particularly in the action set pieces, is indeed well done, it’s nothing revolutionary nor imaginative that stands out from the rest in this CG-feature-a-week marketplace.

Wonderfully Bitter Sunshine

Little Miss SunshineLITTLE MISS SUNSHINE is a family-centered road dramedy that culminates in a beauty pageant for little girls. But while writer Michael Arndt and married director team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris convey the expected lessons about embracing who you are, foibles and all, it comes in a hilariously caustic package that makes its ultimate uplift genuinely feel-good instead of insufferably saccharine. The major credit goes to the cast, who make the dysfunctional Hoover family real people beyond their quirks: Greg Kinnear as the haughty wannabe self-help guru dad; Toni Collette as the ever-harried mom; Steve Carell as her brother, a gay, suicidal scholar; Alan Arkin as the crude, heroin-snorting grandpa; Paul Dano as the mopey, silent son who hates everyone; and Abigail Breslin as the cute, but far from pageant-perfect, daughter who is a finalist in the titular beauty contest. Their rushed road trip in an old VW bus from Albuquerque to the Redondo Beach event runs into the expected obstacles and complications, but any contrivances are genuinely funny and sold by the cast, who make you care about the oddball family and each member’s individual journey. But before the atmosphere flirts with getting too heavy, Arndt, Dayton, and Faris pull out all the stops with the finale, a spot-on recreation of a child pageant in all of its garish grotesquerie that’s as hilarious as it is disturbingly convincing–which then just makes that dreaded “feel-good” all the more deserved and satisfying.

Little Miss Death Shine

AzumiWith her angelic face and petite frame, Aya Ueto would be a favorite in any hypothetical Little Miss Sunshine contest. As the title character of the live action manga adaptation AZUMI, however, Ueto is anything but sunshine and tiaras; she’s the best in an elite group of young samurai assassins on a mission to assassinate some sadistic warlords in 19th century Japan. Despite admirably doing most of the samurai sword stunts herself, Ueto is a bit too dainty to be completely convincing as a ruthless killing machine, and she doesn’t have the acting chops to compensate for physical presence shortcomings; heavy-handed dialogue continually insisting that she’s “the best” doesn’t help matters, either. But it’s a tribute to the energy of director Ryuhei Kitamura that the big set pieces–including a huge, climactic explosion- and splatter-filled free-for-all samurai battle–still engage and excite in all their excess, and the raw visceral pleasures are enough to carry the film past some clunky melodrama that bloats the film to a two-hour-plus run time.

Old News  

ScoopAfter the dark, cynical trappings of his change-of-pace thriller Match Point, SCOOP finds Woody Allen reverting to his light comedy roots and general predictability. While he does retain two of the fresh elements in his last film, the London setting and star Scarlett Johansson, there isn’t a whole lot else here that will strike one as being fairly new–certainly not Allen in full kvetch as another neurotic nebbish, a hack magician who aids a student reporter (Johansson) on a less-than-professional undercover investigation of a dashing aristocrat (Hugh Jackman, given little to do) who may be a serial killer. As in any Allen comedy, a good one-liner pops up here and there, but the scattered wit and initial novelty of seeing and hearing Johansson put on an Allen avatar geek persona in her first scene can’t carry the film behind some clunky metaphysical devices (Johansson’s character is set on her investigation by the spirit of a recently deceased journalist, played by Ian McShane), the lack of big laughs, and Allen’s tired on-screen schtick.

Sights Unseen

Three teen girls (Ashanti, Sophia Bush, and Arielle Kebbel) decide that school stud JOHN TUCKER MUST DIE after they discover he’s been dating all of them. Jesse Metcalfe plays the title character, and Brittany Snow plays the new girl who helps the trio exact their revenge.

At the Video Store

After seeing him walk through Miami Vice, moviegoers may want to remind themselves that Colin Farrell can indeed act, as seen in ASK THE DUST (Paramount Home Entertainment), in which he plays a writer who gets caught up in a tempestuous affair with a Mexican waitress (Salma Hayek). Farrell is good, but he isn’t as impressive as Hayek, who again shows she candeliver when given weighty material; even more impressive still is the phenomenal production design, which recreated ’30s Los Angeles in South Africa. But despite the actors’ noble individual efforts, the chemistry never quite ignites, and Robert Towne’s labor of love (he worked some 30 years to bring John Fante’s novel to the screen) comes off as more of a meticulous technical exercise than an emotionally engaging one, and it gets increasingly less involving as more formulaic paces (beware the evil Cough of Foreshadowing) start to surface. The DVD includes commentary by Towne and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel as well as a making-of featurette.

If you’ve seen the first two films in the series, then you know exactly what FINAL DESTINATION 3 (New Line Home Entertainment) has in store: a teen (in this go-round, Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has an ominous premonition of a deadly disaster, panics, causes herself and others to escape said disaster; the grim reaper picks off the survivors one-by-one in series of grisly “accidents.” There are some admittedly amusingly gory kills, and original director James Wong (returning after taking the second film off), does serve up some nicely macabre laughs along the way, but on the whole this is a cinematic case of lather, rinse, repeat. The two-disc “Thrill Ride Edition” DVD provides an exhaustive look at the making of the film by way of a commentary track by Wong as well as a feature-length making-documentary, plus a few for-the-fun of it extras: a featurette on the “Dead Teenager Movie” genre; a rather smart animated short about fate and death paranoia called It’s All Around You; and, most notably of all, a “choose their fate” option where one can alter the destinies of the characters while watching the film. This feature, with which the course of the film is altered to varying degrees, is good for equally varying levels of amusement, but it’s just one piece of an impressive DVD package.

Those looking for a fully interactive movie experience may be interested in the first animated direct-to-video feature based on the classic CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE children’s book series, THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN (Goldhil Entertainment). Frankie Muniz, William H. Macy, Lacey Chabert, Daryl Sabara, and Felicity Huffman lend their voices to this tale that begins as an expedition to the Himalayas in search of the legendary Yeti but can end in no less than 11 ways. Bonus features include a documentary on the Himalayas and a behind the scenes featurette.

Next Time…

…more reviews, including The Descent. As always, for additional reviews from past and present and and more, check out my home site, TheMovieReport.com .

 

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